By Matthew Asher
While the Seattle Seahawks (12-4) enjoyed a bye week last week, the Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) earned their way into the Divisional Round thanks to a 27-16 beatdown of the Arizona Cardinals. Even though Carolina still doesn't have a winning record, Seattle should know from personal experience that a winning record in the playoffs is not needed to advance. If Seattle wants to repeat their success last season, here are three keys to getting them one step closer.
Key 1: Carolina Defense Is No Laughing Matter
Ignore all the statistics in the regular season for this one. There's only one game Seattle needs to pay attention to this week and that's last week's tape showing how Carolina limited Arizona to just 77 offensive yards in the entire game. That was not a typo. Seventy-seven yards is now the NFL-record for fewest yards allowed in an NFL playoff game.
Arizona quarterback Ryan Lindley threw for 82 total yards and one touchdown, but was sacked four times for 32 yards and also threw two interceptions. Kerwynn Williams led the Cardinals in rushing with just 23 yards on 10 carries. Larry Fitzgerald only caught three passes for 31 yards. Both Arizona touchdowns were one-yard scores, meaning the Panthers never allowed any big plays. The Cardinals went 3-12 (25 percent) on their third down conversions and held the ball for fewer than 23 total minutes of game time.
Key 2: Force Newton To Do Everything
Cam Newton didn't have a great game but he, and the team, played well enough that it didn't matter. Newton finished the game completing 18 of his 32 pass attempts for 198 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran the ball seven times for 35 yards. Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart did the majority of the work on the ground as he picked up 122 yards on 24 carries, including one touchdown, which meant Newton wasn't under much pressure throughout the game.
Key 3: Newton Doesn't Have A Favorite Target
Newton's 18 completions last week went to nine different Panthers. Stewart was the only receiver to not gain positive yards as his one catch went for negative-three yards. Kelvin Benjamin was the only Carolina player to record at least four receptions as he finished with 33 yards. Three other players caught at least three passes in the game and none of the Panthers recorded at least 40 receiving yards. Running back Fozzy Whittaker actually led the team with 39 receiving yards on his only catch of the game that also ended up going for a touchdown. Carolina's other receiving touchdown was thanks to fullback Mike Tolbert's one-yard TD catch. It was also his only catch of the game.
Conclusion: Seattle has home-field advantage, although that hasn't been as critical this season as it was last year. Still, playing at C-Link is always better than playing on the road, so if the 12th Man stays loud throughout the game and makes sure Carolina's defense is well-respected, there's no reason Seattle doesn't move on to the NFC title game in a week.
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Matthew Asher is a freelance journalist. From an early age, sports have played a major role in his life. He graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in Journalism. After college he spent 2 years working with CNN Sports and still occasionally writes sports articles for several publications both in the United States and Canada. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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