A look at the Seahawks' divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday night, including five matchups that could determine the outcome:
When: Saturday, Jan. 10, 5:15 p.m. PT, CenturyLink Field
Records: The Seahawks were 12-4 during the regular season to win the NFC West and clinch the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, which also earned them a bye in the first round; the Panthers were 7-8-1 to win the NFC South and beat the Arizona Cardinals in a wild-card game last Saturday.
Streaks: The Seahawks won nine of their last 10 regular-season games, including the final six; the Panthers have won five in a row, including their 27-16 victory over the Cardinals.
What's Next: The winner of this game will play in the NFC Championship game against the winner of Sunday's game between the Dallas Cowboys and Packers in Green Bay. If the Seahawks win, the title game will be played at CenturyLink Field. If the Panthers win, they will travel to either Dallas or Green Bay.
TV: FOX (channel 13 in Seattle), with Kevin Burkhardt (play-by-play), John Lynch (commentary), and Pam Oliver (sidelines) on the call.
Radio: 710 ESPN Seattle and KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, with Steve Raible (play-by-play), Warren Moon (commentary), and Jen Mueller (sidelines) in your ear.
In The AFC: Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at New England Patriots (12-4) on Saturday; Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at Denver Broncos (12-4) on Sunday.
1. Matchup Microscope
Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly vs Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch:** Containing Lynch isn't all on Kuechly, of course. But when it comes to the Panthers' defense, everything starts and usually stops with the third-year linebacker, who led the NFL with 153 tackles. The Seahawks featured the NFL's No. 1-ranked rushing attack during the regular season and Lynch scored a league-high 17 touchdowns. Lynch had 62 yards and Kuechly had seven tackles in the Week 8 meeting between the two clubs this season; Lynch had 43 yards and Kuechly nine tackles in the 2013 opener between Seattle and Carolina; and Lynch had 85 yards and Kuechly 11 tackles in the teams' Week 5 matchup in 2012. To control this game, the Seahawks need to get the ball to Lynch early and continue to give it to him. He has had only 20-plus carries in one of the past three games against the Panthers, and that was during his 85-yard performance in 2012. And he did not rush for the TD in any of those games. To control the game with Lynch, the Seahawks will have to contain Kuechly, who has had 164, 156, and 153 tackles in his first three seasons.
2. One To Watch
Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner vs Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart: This is the flip side to the Kuechly-Lynch matchup. And this one isn't all on Wagner, either, but the Seahawks cannot allow Stewart to continue his productive run in this "homecoming" game for a back who was the Washington state high school player of the year as a senior at Timberline High School in Lacey. During the Panthers' four-game winning streak in December, only the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray (418) had more rushing yards than Stewart (401). And Stewart then went for 123 against the Cardinals last Saturday. Wagner, meanwhile, was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month of December. Since he stepped back into the middle of the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense after missing five games at midseason with a torn ligament in his foot, the Seahawks have allowed an average of 6.5 points during their six-game winning streak and Wagner has been the team's leading tackler five times. In this collision-course matchup, Wagner being the winner more often than not will help the Seahawks come away with the win.
3. Fun To Watch
Seahawks SS Kam Chancellor vs Panthers QB Cam Newton:** Kam? Or Cam? Chancellor will have other responsibilities – like dealing with TE Greg Olsen, who had career-bests in receptions (84) and receiving yards (1,008) during his first Pro Bowl season. But when Newton breaks from the pocket, he is determined to run. Chancellor must match that determination with some of his calling-card hits. Newton is the only player in NFL history to have four consecutive seasons with at least 3,000 passing yards and at least 500 rushing yards. But in three matchups against the Seahawks, and Chancellor, Newton has averaged 146 passing yards and 34.7 rushing yards – which would produce a 2,336-yard passing season and a 555-yard rushing season. The Seahawks need to pressure Newton into another below-average performance and force him to beat them. And the pressure point in accomplishing that needs to be Chancellor, on multiple occasions.
4. One Tough Task
Panthers Offensive Linemen Andrew Norwell & Trai Turner vs The Situation: Norwell, a rookie free agent, will be making his 10th NFL start on the left side. Turner, the Panthers' third-round draft choice, will be making his 11th start on the right side. But neither of the rookies has ever started a game in the din generated by the 12s at CenturyLink Field. In addition to that intangible, Norwell and Turner also will have to deal with the very tangible presence of sack-leader Michael Bennett in the Seahawks' nickel line and the combined 616 pounds of mayhem generated by NT Kevin Williams DT Tony McDaniel in the base defense.
5. Don't Overlook
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson:** When push comes to shove, which it has the past three times the Seahawks have played the Panthers, Wilson has a knack for making the plays when they're most needed. In Week 8, it was Wilson's 23-yard pass to TE Luke Willson for the game-winning TD to cap an 80-yard drive with 47 seconds left. In the 2013 opener, it was Wilson to Jermaine Kearse for a 43-yard TD that gave the Seahawks the lead early in the first quarter. In the 2012 game, it was Wilson to the since-departed Golden Tate for the go-ahead TD late in the third quarter. This season, Wilson passed for a career-high 3,475 yards and also ran for a career-high 849 yards. In the biggest game of the season, he needs to come up big once again.
This is a matchup of the only two teams to win their divisions with a losing record. The Seahawks (7-9) did it in 2010. The Panthers (7-8-1) did it this season. … The Seahawks lead the regular-season series 5-2, including victories in Carolina the past three seasons and a victory in the last meeting in Seattle in 2010. The Seahawks also have a 1-0 lead in the postseason, and the victory came in the 2005 NFC Championship game in Seattle. … The Panthers have outscored their opponents 138-59 during their five-game winning streak. … The Seahawks have outscored their opponents 134-39 during their six-game winning streak. … Panthers rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin had 73 catches for 1,008 yards during the regular season, including a season-best 51-yarder against the Seahawks. … DE Charles Johnson led the Panthers with 8.5 sacks. … Panthers K Graham Gano led the NFL with 61 touchbacks on kickoffs this season and also is the leader over the past two seasons (124). … OLB K.J. Wright led the Seahawks with 107 tackles. … OLB Thomas Davis had 100 tackles for the Panthers.