(SportsNetwork.com) - Defense will be on the docket in Seattle when the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks host the upstart Carolina Panthers with a berth in the NFC Championship Game on the line.
Since Dec. 1, the top-ranked Seahawks defense has only amped things up, leading the NFL in both points and yardage allowed (8.3 points per game, 211.3 yards per game), and Carolina's stop unit is right behind in both categories, allowing 11.8 ppg and 238.2 ypg over that same span.
The 8-8-1 Panthers are a heavy underdog against top-seeded Seattle but have gotten hot at the right time, winning five straight and averaging 27.6 ppg during that stretch, which includes a dominating 27-16 win over Arizona in the wild-card round last weekend, the franchise's first postseason victory since Jan. 15, 2006.
Cam Newton's two third-quarter touchdown passes helped but the smothering Carolina D was the real difference, limiting the Cards to 78 total net yards, the fewest allowed in a postseason game in NFL history.
"Whatever the stat was, that's playoff football, that's championship football right there," said Newton of his team's defensive effort.
Newton delivered scoring strikes to running backs Fozzy Whittaker and Mike Tolbert which helped erase a 14-13 halftime deficit, and that stingy Panthers defense made the lead stand by limiting a weaponless Arizona attack to a mere 13 yards and two first downs over the final 30 minutes.
With third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley at the controls, both of the Cardinals' touchdowns came on short fields caused by a pair of Carolina turnovers.
"Guys have come together and bought into what we are doing," said Panthers All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. "We took the first step and it's an absolutely awesome feeling."
It may not be an awesome feeling in Seattle, though, because the Seahawks are an imposing 24-2 in the Pacific Northwest over the past three seasons, which just happens to correlate with quarterback Russell Wilson taking control of the team. The reigning champs won the NFC West and secured home-field advantage on the NFC side for the second consecutive year.
The Seahawks enter the postseason having won six in a row and are the first team since the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers to win their final six regular-season games and allow less than 40 total points (39). Seattle allowed just three touchdowns during its six-game run and kept five of its six opponents to seven points or under.
"We're exactly where we want to be," said Wilson, who is 40-13 overall as a starter in the NFL. "To be going into the playoffs, have a first-round bye and be the No. 1 team in the NFC, that's what you want.
"Most importantly, we get to play at home again and in front of the best fans in the world. We're high on confidence, like always. But we have to play great football, one game at a time."
Carolina and Seattle have met once prior in the postseason, a 34-14 Seahawks win in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 22, 2006.
Seattle also leads the regular-season series by a 5-2 margin and has won the past four meetings, including a hard-fought 13-9 triumph in the Tar Heel State back on Oct. 26 when Wilson passed for 199 yards and threw a game-winning 23- yard TD pass to tight end Luke Willson with just 47 seconds remaining.
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Super Bowl hangovers are real but the Seahawks seem to have found the tonic for theirs, rebounding from a 3-3 start to win nine of their final 10 games in the regular season.
The real key was getting healthy of the defensive side of the ball. Through those first six games Seattle looked more than mortal on defense, ranking in the bottom half of the league by allowing 23,5.ppg and 324.5 ypg. Since then the unit has been lights out and regrouped to finish No. 1 in the NFL by surrendering 267.1 ypg. The return of stud middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, along with hard-hitting Kam Chancellor, from injuries propelled the defense.
"We figured it out. It just took us a long time," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "It just took us longer than we would like, but the thing that happened this year just happened in different order than it did last year."
That defense in the 12th-man environment is a tough matchup for Newton and Co, on paper. One thing that could help, though, is the absence of defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who is done for the season with a calf injury.
Newton, who suffered two broken bones in his back in a car accident on Dec. 9, was far from explosive against Arizona last weekend, throwing for 198 yards and he was even worse against Seattle back in October, tossing for 171 yards with an interception and a lost fumble.
"We have to play better than we have," Carolina coach Ron Rivera admitted. "We just have to be smarter than some of the things we did out there. We have to protect the football, especially playing the defending Super Bowl champions at home."
Helping Newton is the fact that run game has really picked up for the Panthers. Running back Jonathan Stewart had 123 yards on the ground against the Cardinals and has 609 yards over his last six games.
The Seahawks offense, meanwhile, is all about Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch.
Wilson is a true dual-threat and is at his best when extending plays and breaking the defense down. He's got an Aaron Rodgers-like ability to keep his eyes up and looking for big plays downfield, along with the athleticism to kill any defense running the football as evidenced by his 849 yards rushing, tops among all NFL quarterbacks.
Lynch, meanwhile, ran for over 1,300 yards and 13 TDs this season and always seems to pick up his game as the stakes get higher.
Seattle is also expected to get a boost with the return of Pro Bowl-level center Max Unger, who missed the final six regular-season games due to knee and ankle issues.
"It will be big to get Max Unger back," Wilson said. "He's a Pro Bowl center. He's as good as it gets, in my opinion, the best in the league. So much confidence in his ability to make the right calls and be in the right spot, just do a great job against a very good defensive line. He's very intelligent and very physical and he just knows how to play the game the right way."
The Carolina defense, which is starting three rookies in cornerback Bene Benwikere, safety Tre Boston, and linebacker Adarius Glanton, broke the 56-year old postseason record of 86 total yards allowed by the New York Giants against the Cleveland Browns in 1958 last week against Arizona.
Without the exiled Greg Hardy, Kuechly and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis are the unquestioned difference makers with both registering nine tackles last weekend and Kuechly making several pivotal fourth quarter plays to keep the game out of reach with an interception at the Panthers 4-yard line and a tipped pass that was intercepted by Boston in the end zone to seal the game.
In Hardy's absence. Charles Johnson has taken over as the unit's best pass rusher with 8 1/2 sacks in the regular , his fifth consecutive year with eight-or-more QB takedowns. The consistent Johnson is the only NFC player with 50-or-more sacks (52 1/2) and 13-or-more forced fumbled (13) since 2010 and he carried a late-season surge into the playoffs with two sacks and three quarterback hurries against Lindley.
"They have a great front seven," Wilson said. "Their front seven is very active and their linebackers are as good as it gets. I've got a lot of respect for Luke Kuechly, (Thomas) Davis as well, knowing those guys and playing against them they really fly around and I have a good relationship with Luke [Kuechly] so I know how much of a competitor he is and he leads those guys in the right way."
The Panthers' line suffered a big loss, however, when defensive tackle Star Lotulelei fractured his foot at the end of Tuesday's practice.
"He stepped on somebody's foot and rolled his at the very end of practice," Rivera said. "He had surgery to repair it."
Rivera said Lotulelei needs at least two weeks to heal and veteran Colin Cole is expected to join the rotation inside along with Kawann Short and Dwan Edwards.
"We'll miss Star, but I think we have the guys who can fill in and do more than an adequate job," Rivera said.
The Seahawks are trying to become the first NFL team to repeat as Super Bowl champions since New England in 2005. It was almost paramount to get Seattle out of CenturyLink Field if any NFC team had hopes of dethroning the reigning champions but the road to Super Bowl XLIX now runs through the Pacific Northwest.
Carolina is better than people think but even the best teams don't want to be play in Seattle where the Seahawks will be shooting for their eighth straight postseason win. Expecting the Panthers to halt that streak is unlikely.
"I consider myself blessed to play in this stadium," Wilson said. "It's one of those things where you think about the amazing fans that we have, the energy that they bring, it's a cool thing to watch. It's one of those things that if you're a fan of football, or like sports in general, it's one of those things you have to put on your bucket list. It's electric in there and I'm excited to play in there every time we get to step on the field."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 23, Panthers 10