By Dave Thomas
When the two teams faced off a season ago in the NFC playoffs in Seattle, the Seahawks were a rather solid favorite to beat Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. As it turned out, Seattle did just that (Seahawks won 31-17) en route to meeting New England in Super Bowl XLIX.
This time around, it's the Panthers who come in as a field goal favorite, this after sporting a remarkable 15-1 regular season run, with the only blip on the schedule a late-season loss to Atlanta.
So, can the Seahawks play the spoiler role and make it to their third straight NFC Championship game?
All Hands On Deck Needed To Knock Off Carolina
If Seattle (11-6) is to knock off the NFL's top team, they will be looking for contributions from starting running back Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch, who has missed the last seven regular season games while recovering from abdominal surgery, says he hopes to go this Sunday in Charlotte, though he and head coach Pete Carroll were also hopeful of him playing last Sunday in Minnesota. As it turned out, Christian Michael did the bulk of the running for Seattle, as Lynch did not accompany the team to the Twin Cities.
Another hopeful sign for the Seahawks is that tight end Luke Willson is also looking to see time against the Panthers.
Having missed a couple of games with a concussion, Willson's (17 receptions, 213 yards, 1 TD) importance to the team at the tight end position increased dramatically late in the season when starting tight end Jimmy Graham went down with a season-ending knee injury.
The Seahawks will also look to have the services of defensive end Michael Bennett (toe injury) and fullback Will Tukuafu (hamstring).
Bennett (52 total tackles, 10 sacks) saw limited action in practice this week, while Tukuafu was sidelined from taking part in preparations for Sunday's game.
When it comes to beating the Panthers, Seattle has likely been studying game film from Carolina's only loss of the season, a 20-13 loss in Atlanta.
In that game, Newton was held to 17-of-30 passing for 142 yards and no touchdowns. Newton did rush for 46 yards and a touchdown, but Carolina's offense possessed the ball nearly 11 minutes less than Atlanta.
If Seattle can pull off the upset in the Queen City, they will move on to the Jan. 24 NFC Championship game against either the second-seeded Arizona Cardinals or the fifth-seeded Green Bay Packers. Given the Seahawks are the sixth and final seed in the NFC playoffs, Seattle would once again be on the road in the playoffs.
For now, however, all eyes are focused on stopping one of the league's most dynamic offenses (Carolina was the only team this season to score 500 points) and getting one step closer to avenging last season's heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl to New England.
Michael Bennett, defensive end (toe)
Marshawn Lynch, running back (abdominal surgery)
Will Tukuafu, fullback (hamstring)
Luke Willson, tight end (concussion)
Dave Thomas has been covering the sports world since his first job as a sports editor for a weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania back in 1989. He has covered a Super Bowl, college bowl games, MLB, NBA and more. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.
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