Michael Bennett compared this to a heavyweight fight. Others have said it's like facing a division rival. However you want to describe the Seahawks playoff game at Carolina, which will be the sixth meeting between the teams in the past four seasons, it is most definitely an intriguing matchup between two evenly matched and very similar teams.
Because the Panthers and Seahawks are both such good and balanced teams, there are numerous matchups to keep an eye on, ranging from a battle between Seattle's run defense and a diverse Panthers running game, to how a beat-up Panthers secondary will handle Seattle's improved passing game, to what the Seahawks can do against one of the best front-sevens in football.
But for now, we'll focus on these three key matchups:
1. The showdown between two MVP-caliber quarterbacks.
While the running games, defense and special teams will all play huge roles in this game, now more than ever, both of these teams have star quarterbacks capable of putting up huge numbers on any given Sunday. Unless something really weird is going on, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson will never go head-to-head on the field Sunday, but whichever Pro-Bowl quarterback performs better against a very good opposing defense will very likely go a long ways towards determining the outcome of Sunday's game.
While Cam Newton, who threw 35 touchdown passes this season and rushed for 10 more, figures to be the MVP this year after leading the Panthers to a 15-1 record, a good argument can be made that Russell Wilson was even better down the stretch. Wilson threw 24 touchdown passes and just one interception during Seattle's last seven games of the regular season, helping him finish with a league-best 110.1 passer rating, while Newton "only" threw 20 touchdown passes with one interception during that same span, helping make sure the Panthers secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
"Their offense is built around number 1," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "He's a huge part. He's the catalyst of their offense."
Whichever quarterback you prefer—and there's no wrong answer—both are more than capable of putting on a show on Sunday, and if either one does, that could be more than enough to swing the outcome of the game.
2. Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. the Seahawks pass defense.
Few NFL teams rely on their tight end in the passing game more than the Panthers do with Greg Olsen, and for good reason. Olsen finished this season with 77 catches for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns, an impressive year that included a seven-catch, 131-yard game in Seattle. Olsen caught the game-winning touchdown in the final minute of that game, and if the Seahawks aren't sharper with their coverage this time around, he is more than capable of making them pay once again.
"He's a magnificent target," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He can do everything. They know it. They know they have a great player. They use him all over the field, crucial situations. Down the field, third-down situations as well. He can do everything. He's a great player… He's as good as the best guys that play the game."
When the Seahawks are at their best in zone coverage, there can still be completions to be had in the middle of the field, which is why Carroll doesn't fret about every completion, but what Seattle can't have this time around are the big plays over the top of the defense.
"He's a big threat," safety Earl Thomas said. "Him and Ted Ginn. He always finds a way to get open, they draw up great concepts for him to get one-on-one matchups and he does a great job of capitalizing."
3. Seahawks LB Bruce Irvin vs. Carolina's offensive line.
Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril have been the Seahawks' most consistent pass rushers for the better part of their three seasons in Seattle, but if the Seahawks need a sack in a big moment on Sunday, they might just get it out of linebacker Bruce Irvin, who for reasons neither he nor his coaches can explain, has been at his very best as a pass-rusher when facing Carolina.
Of Irvin's 22 career sacks in the regular season, six of them have come in three games against Carolina. Irvin also sacked Newton once in last year's playoff game, meaning he has seven in four games against Carolina.
"I don't know," Carroll said. "He has done well. He's had significant plays too, caused fumbles and stuff like that. Sometimes it just happens like that, I don't have a good reason for that."
Irvin can't explain it either, though he jokes that maybe it has something to do with both players having Atlanta roots.
"Seven in four games?" Irvin said. "I don't know why I always play good against Cam. I don't know, it might an Atlanta thing. He's from Atlanta, I'm from Atlanta, so maybe I try to show him up I guess? I don't know, man."
Whatever the reason, the Seahawks would love it if Irvin can add to that total.
Seahawks Legend Marcus Trufant kicked off another playoff Blue Friday raising a 12 Flag at the Space Needle and the Blue Friday Bus Tour made Washington stops in Monroe, Kirkland and Bellevue to do the same.