By Steve Silverman
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The Carolina Panthers will host the Seattle Seahawks in the most glamorous and compelling divisional matchup of the weekend.
After sleepwalking through more than half the season, the Seahawks looked in the mirror, realized who they were and won six of their last seven games.
The Panthers also went on a roll, but theirs lasted the entire season as they won 15 of 16 games, including a 27-23 victory at Seattle in Week 6. When the Panthers needed it late, MVP favorite Cam Newton hit superb tight end Greg Olsen on a 26-yard scoring strike to win it.
While the Seahawks did not play well in the first half of the season, that may have been the best game they played over the first two months.
The Panthers may have had a brilliant regular season, but they are not getting a lot of respect from those who set the line. Carolina owns homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but is just a 1-point favorite this weekend.
There's plenty of good news for Carolina, and some of it comes from having benefited from having the bye week during the wild-card round. Running back Jonathan Stewart should be as healthy as he has been in a long time after missing the last three games of the regular season with a foot injury.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Stewart has been running around practice without limitations, and that means he should be able to take on a full role against Seattle. Stewart is a meat grinder of a running back who ran for 989 yards, 4.1 yards per carry and six touchdowns during the regular season.
Stewart should make life a lot easier for Newton because opposing defenses have to respect him and put in an extra effort just to get him on the ground. No team gets more out of the play-action pass than the Panthers, because opposing linebackers often get caught dropping into coverage when Newton sticks the ball in Stewart's midsection.
When Newton pulls that pull back and sees Olsen or Ted Ginn Jr. crossing over the middle, he delivers the ball in stride and that leads to big plays. Newton carried the Panthers on his back this season, piling up 35 touchdown passes and 10 scores on the ground.
Newton has had a magnificent run, and there are no other quarterbacks in the NFL like him. The Seahawks have enough weapons on defense in Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright and Kam Chancellor to fully challenge Newton, but the Carolina quarterback has come out on top in every meaningful game this season.
As talented as the Seahawks are on defense, they didn't come around and start winning games consistently until they changed their personality and decided to put the ball in Russell Wilson's hands and asked him to beat teams with his arm.
As much success as Wilson had in his first three seasons, he was largely dependent on his scrambling ability, the short passing game and the running of Marshawn Lynch. Head coach Pete Carroll changed the emphasis halfway through the regular season, and the quarterback started firing the ball accurately and deep.
Wilson rolled up a 24-to-1 TD-to-interception ratio over the last seven regular season games, and his primary partner was Doug Baldwin. Prior to his surge, Baldwin was known as a decent receiver who could make a few play, but he was far from a star.
That changed suddenly, as he finished with 14 TD receptions.
Lynch is the X-factor, as he played in just seven games this season with an abdomen injury. He has been a full participant in practice this week, but Carroll has not said if he can count on "Beastmode" against the Panthers. Lynch practiced last week -- seemingly without an issue -- but he did not play during the win over the Minnesota Vikings.
The Panthers will try to wreck the Seattle running game with linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, arguably the NFL's best 1-2 punch at the position. Cornerback Josh Norman has emerged as a game-changer with four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), 22 passes defensed, 56 tackles, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Norman also has a rather classless demeanor on the field, as Odell Beckham Jr. learned when the Panthers played the Giants in Week 15.
The Panthers have had a brilliant season, and they also have plenty of fuel left to use against a team that has been the standard-bearer in the NFC for the past two years. Rivera will be able to play the "overlooked" and "no-respect" cards to the hilt.
If there is one thing the Panthers have to worry about, it's special teams. They have given up punt and kickoff returns for scores. The Seahawks' Tyler Lockett is a threat every time he gets his hands on the ball. Additionally, kicker Steven Hauschka has a big edge over Carolina's Graham Gano.
Still, this is shaping up as the Panthers' year. They will get tested by the Seahawks, who are a lot better than they showed in the first half of the season. Carolina may fall behind in this one, but it has its own version of Superman in Newton, and he will get it done in the fourth quarter.
PREDICTION: The Panthers will move on to the NFC Championship game, with a 31-24 win.
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