SEATTLE, Wash. – Greetings from CenturyLink Field, as the two-week wait for the Seahawks' playoff opener is finally over.
And their opponent in this divisional-round matchup is no stranger. The Seahawks have played the Panthers in each of the past three regular seasons, all in Charlotte; and they also hosted the Panthers during the 2010 regular season, as well as in the 2005 NFC Championship game when their victory sent the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl.
The teams that will meet on this soggy Saturday evening, however, are not even the same teams that faced off in Week 8 in Carolina. That's when the Seahawks were 3-3, coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since 2012 and looking incapable of making a run at defending the Super Bowl championship they won in February. That's also when the Panthers were just beginning a 62-day stretch where they would not win a game.
The Seahawks won nine of their last 10 games, including the final six in the regular season, to storm past the Arizona Cardinals in claiming the NFC West title and No. 1 seed in the postseason. The Panthers, meanwhile, won their final four regular-season games to win the NFC South – with a losing record – and then held the Cardinals to a playoff record-low 78 yards in last Saturday's wild-card game in Charlotte.
"They were a different team, and we were a different team six games ago," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said this week.
Indeed. What the Seahawks and Panthers have become entering this matchup, with the winner advancing to the NFC Championship game next Sunday, is two teams where "It's almost like you're looking in the mirror," as Seahawks' sack-leader Michael Bennett put it.
"It's so much alike, man," Bennett added, in his unique way. "It's like you look at a girl who looks like you, and you find out it's your cousin, so you can't go on a date with her even though you'd like to, because she looks like you."
During their six-game winning streak, the Seahawks' No. 1-ranked defense held opponents to an average of 6.5 points per game and the offense scored just enough points by mixing explosive plays – runs of 12-plus yards and passes of 16-plus yards – with a relentless running game that features Beast Mode back Marshawn Lynch and also Russell Wilson, who led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards this season.
During their five-game winning streak, the Panthers' defense has held opponents to an average of 11.8 points and former Washington state high school player of the year Jonathan Stewart has run for more yards (524) than any back in the NFL.
Control the ball on offense, control the tempo on defense, take more than you give. That has been the play-alike pattern that's allowed these two teams to combine for 11 consecutive victories.
But there is one subtle difference. The Seahawks did their damage against teams with a combined record of 54-42 and played only one team that finished with a losing record – the 6-10 St. Louis Rams. The Panthers caught fire against teams that were a combined 33-42 and they faced only one team that finished the regular season with a winning record – the 11-5 Cardinals, who were with their third-string QB down the stretch.
In their regular-season matchups the past three years, neither team has scored more than 16 points as the Seahawks have won 13-9 in Week 8 this season; 12-7 in the 2013 opener; and 16-12 in 2012. But those games were played in the Queen City, while this game is being played in the Emerald City.
What to expect this time around? Anything. Everything. And one thing for sure.
"They made the playoffs, they're making a run," All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said. "We made the playoffs, and we're making a run. So it should be fun and there will be a whole lot of defense."
Which defense will prevail? Which team will continue its run? We're about to find out, with kickoff and televised coverage on FOX (channel 13 in Seattle) set for 5:15 p.m. PT.
Four of our photographers took these beautiful photos of Seattle's skyline drenched in Seahawks pride.