While we're all about living in the present, there's nothing wrong with looking back at a big sports moment from the past. While the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks met earlier this season (with Carolina winning 27-23 on the road), let's also not forget about what happened last year in the playoffs.
In the divisional round of the 2015 playoffs, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks proved to be too much for Cam Newton and the Panthers, winning 31-17 to move on to the NFC championship game. It was a fun game to watch, and now, we get to see it happen all over again, just over a year later. For the Panthers, it was a 15-1 regular season record with an opening round bye that got them here. As for Seattle, it was a hard-fought, 10-9 victory, complete with a brutal missed field goal by Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh.
Regardless of what it took to make it happen, Seattle and Carolina are set for what should be one of the best games of the weekend.
The home victory for the 12-4 Seahawks last year in the playoffs wasn't shocking, as Seattle had gone 7-1 at home, and were up against a Panthers team who had gone 7-8-1 in the regular season. Seattle was a big favorite, and while Carolina was down just 14-10 at halftime, it was simply too much Wilson when all was said and done. Seattle's star quarterback threw just seven incompletions, connecting on 15 of 22 passes for 268 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His 149.2 quarterback rating summed up how strong his play was.
To top it all off, a 90-yard interception returned for a touchdown by Kam Chancellor in the fourth quarter put the Seahawks up 31-10, and truly broke the back of the Panthers. That was one of two interceptions for Newton on the day, as he finished 23 of 36 passing for 246 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Newton was also held in check on the ground, rushing 11 times for just 37 yards. Kelvin Benjamin led the way for Carolina offensively, catching seven balls for 75 yards and two touchdowns.
So the question is, what's different between then and now? And the answer is everything.
It was the Panthers who were dominant during the regular season, losing just one game as mentioned above. On the other side, Seattle had an incredible tear down the home stretch, winning six of their last seven games, but they made the postseason as a wild card this year. Regardless of how they made it, Seattle has advanced to the divisional round, but on paper it's going to look like a whole different ball game compared to 2015.
Not only are the Panthers without Benjamin, who tore his ACL before the season, but Seattle may be without running back Marshawn Lynch, as well, who rushed 14 times for 59 yards in last year's playoff matchup. Those are two big names to be without, but obviously we've seen both teams have success without those players.
Aside from the players themselves, it's obvious that a 15-1 Panthers team is far different than a 7-8-1 Panthers team. Newton has gone from being a solid quarterback at this time last year, to being an elite quarterback. He threw for over 700 more yards this year compared to last, while also throwing 17 more touchdowns, rushing for five more touchdowns and throwing two fewer interceptions. Newton has gone from being good, to being exceptional. To top it all off, the Carolina defense has been even better this season. Last year they allowed 23.4 points per game in the regular season, while allowing just 19.3 this year.
Interestingly, though, a similar argument to the one made about Newton, can be made for Seattle's lead man. Wilson threw 14 more touchdowns in the regular season this year than he did last year, while also topping 4,000 passing yards and increasing his completion percentage by five points. He's become a much more well-rounded passer, and has shown that he can dominate games with his arm. The differences from last year's divisional playoff matchup and this year's are big, and they start at the quarterback position.
It's time to talk about the present, though, and that means breaking down the game itself. While the Seahawks come in with a full head of steam after losing just two games since their loss to Carolina back in the middle of October, can their hot run match the hot run of the one-loss Panthers? It's a tough decision to make, but home field advantage will play a big role in this one. Carolina and Seattle both have stellar defenses, but obviously the success these teams had late in the year won't matter if they can't get out of the divisional round.
Choosing between the hot hand of Wilson or the MVP candidate in Newton is tough, but this game is going to come down to the wire. With the ball in the hands of Newton and Carolina getting the opportunity to play in front of their home fans, I believe the Panthers move on to the NFC championship game in a close one.
Jeff Smith writes about the NFL for FOX Sports. You can find him on Twitter @JSM8ith.