If it seems like the Seahawks have played the Carolina Panthers a lot in recent years, well that's because they have, facing off in the regular season every year since 2012, and twice in the playoffs in that span, including last year when the Panthers beat Seattle in the divisional round on their way to the Super Bowl.
This season, Carolina comes to Seattle with a 4-7 record, but despite the Panthers' struggles, the Seahawks know they're facing a talented opponent, one that has many of the pieces in place from last year's team that went 15-1.
"We know who they are, they know who we are, so it makes for an interesting game," Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said. "They've got a great team over there. Their record definitely doesn't show how good they are. They've got some playmakers, we've got to go out there and play ball. We can't take them lightly at all… They have some weapons, we have to respect them."
For the Seahawks to bounce back last week's loss in Tampa Bay and improve upon their NFC West-leading 7-3-1 record, here are three matchups that could make the difference when they host Carolina at CenturyLink Field Sunday:
1. Cam Newton vs. the entire Seahawks defense.
When it comes to defending the reigning NFL MVP, it truly takes a team effort. As was evident last season when Newton threw 35 touchdown passes with just 10 interceptions, he can be as dangerous as just about any quarterback with his arm, but what is really unique about Newton is the threat he presents as a runner. Yes, there are other mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL, including Seattle's Russell Wilson, but none are built like Newton, who is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds.
"He's just as big as me, so that makes it hard in itself," Avril said. "You're not used to bringing down quarterbacks that big. And he's a heck of an athlete. He's one of the better athletes in the league, so as a pass-rusher, you've got to be able to rush while keeping an eye on him making sure you can get to him and wrap him up."
Added defensive coordinator Kris Richard: "It's just physical nature. You're talking about a big, massive running back. He can throw the football and before you know it, it turns into wildcat. There he is, he's keeping it and they're going power and counters and sweeps and things like that. It's the extra running back that you really can't account for, but you better be prepared for."
The Seahawks definitely respect what Newton can bring to the offense, as well as the weapons he has around him, including running back Jonathan Stewart and tight end Greg Olsen, but they also feel like they're as well equipped as any defense to deal with those threats, both because of their defensive talent and their familiarity with that offense.
"They have so many different elements to it," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "They're the only team I think that runs quarterback power. (Mike) Tolbert, Stewart, Cam, those are three guys you have to worry about, but we've played this team so many times, it feels like a division game, we have so much film on them."
2. Wilson to Baldwin (and other receivers) vs. Carolina's secondary.
Wilson and the entire offense are coming off of a tough performance in Tampa Bay, but if the Seahawks quarterback has a bit more time to throw this week, he and his receivers could be in for a big day.
Despite a pass rush that has produced 31 sacks this season, the Panthers have allowed 275.2 passing yards per game, which ranks 29th in the league. Part of those struggles were caused by injuries earlier this season, but even when healthy, Carolina is starting two rookies at cornerback, Daryl Worley and James Bradberry. That Panthers are also expected to be without starting safety Kurt Coleman, who did not practice this week because of a concussion.
When Wilson has had decent protection in recent games prior to last week's loss, the Seahawks were able to make big plays in the passing game, particularly throwing downfield to Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett and Jimmy Graham.
In particular, a receiver as experienced and adept at route-running as Doug Baldwin could be in for a big performance if faced with one-on-one matchups with Carolinas rookie cornerbacks.
Yet while the Panthers have been vulnerable to good passing attacks this season, giving up 21 passing touchdowns, they can still punish teams that are too aggressive, as is evident in their 11 interceptions, which are tied for the fourth most in the league. And even if the secondary is inexperienced, the Panthers have enough talent in their front seven to make things difficult on an offense.
"Their defense flies around, makes tons of plays," Wilson said. "… They've got a lot of guys, and their front seven is physical, fast, they have guys that come in and out of the game. It's going to be a battle for sure and we're looking forward to that challenge."
Take a look at the Carolina Panthers players you can expect to see when the Seattle Seahawks take the field in Week 13 on Sunday Night Football at CenturyLink Field.
3. Seattle's offensive line vs. Carolina's front seven.
While the Panthers' pass defense has struggled at times, they are still one of the most talented teams in the NFL when it comes to their front seven, which is evident both in their 31 sacks and also in their run defense, which ranks second in the NFL allowing 79.2 yards per game. The Panthers have three starters back from the defensive line that gave the Seahawks trouble in the playoff last season, sacking Wilson five times and hitting him 14 times.
Seahawks offense coordinator Darrell Bevell referred to Carolina's defense as being, "Always a great challenge, they have a great front, great backers. Their front seven is probably as good as we're going to face. We have to be right."
And part of why this matchup is so important is that the Seahawks were anything but right up front last weekend when Wilson was sacked six times in a loss to the Buccaneers.
"Not good enough," is how offensive line coach Tom Cable described the performance. "We had a stretch in the middle part of the game that was OK. I felt like some of the run game was there and we really didn't get to it. Protection-wise not good enough."
Players and coaches alike are confident that last week's performance was not indicative of what the line is capable of doing—the Seahawks offense and the line had shown encouraging signs of improvement in recent weeks before that game—and getting center Justin Britt back should help. But for the Seahawks to show that last week was just a one-off performance, they'll need to be sharp against a tough Panthers defense.
"Absolutely," Cable said when asked if he was confident his line could clean things up. "And the group coming in this weekend is a fine defense. You really have to no choice but to get yourself straight."