The teams that will meet Saturday night at CenturyLink Field are not the same teams that faced off in Week 8.
On that Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, the Seahawks were emerging from a 3-3 start that left them looking incapable of making another Super Bowl run. The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, were about to drop what would be loss No. 2 in a six-game losing streak that made it hard to believe they had finished 12-4 in 2013.
Photos of the Seattle Seahawks playing the Carolina Panthers.
But look at them now.
The Seahawks won eight of their last nine games – starting with the 13-9 victory over the Panthers in late October – and their final six regular-season games to win the NFC West title, capture the top seed in the conference and get a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
The Panthers emerged from their 62-day funk between victories to win their final four regular-season games, which allowed them to capture the NFC South – and make them the first team since realignment in 2002 to win the South in back-to-back seasons. They then beat the Arizona Cardinals in historic fashion on Saturday for their first postseason victory since 2005, and a win that sends them to Seattle for Saturday night's 5:15 divisional-round matchup.
"This is not at all the same teams," All-Pro and Pro Bowl middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said Monday. "We're a different team than we were. And they're a different team."
One reason the Seahawks are different is because Wagner has returned after missing five games at midseason with a torn ligament in his foot. And the second game he missed was against the Panthers.
"The Panthers are a different team because they've got a lot of momentum, especially after beating Arizona," Wagner said. "So you know they're going to feel like they can come in here and get a win, but we're going to do our best to stop that."
And with these two teams, it wasn't just that they won, but how they won, to close the regular season and kickoff the postseason.
They did it with defense – dominating, suffocating defense – game after game, week after week. They did it by wearing down opponents with punishing running games. They did it by leaving little doubt.
During their six-game winning streak, the Seahawks' No. 1-ranked defense allowed averages of 6.5 points, 202.2 yards and 66.0 rushing yards. In winning their past five games, the Panthers allowed averages of 11.8 points, 236.6 yards and 83.4 rushing yards.
But the Panthers did it against opponents that finished the regular season with a combined record of 33-47 and played only one team that had a winning record – the 11-5 Cardinals. The Seahawks did their damage against teams that were a combined 54-42, including sweeps of the NFC West rival Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers; and played only one team that finished with a losing record – the 6-10 St. Louis Rams.
As for the running games that carried the respective offenses, only NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray of the Dallas Cowboys had more yards in the final four regular-season games (418) than the Panthers' Jonathan Stewart (401). As a team, the Panthers averaged 199.3 rushing yards in December. But they did it against teams that ranked 32nd (Browns), 29th (Saints), 21st (Falcons) and 19th (Buccaneers) in rushing defense.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, averaged 170.0 rushing yards during their six-game winning streak and they did it against defenses that ranked seventh (49ers, twice), 13th (Cardinals, twice), 14th (Rams) and 15th (Eagles) against the run during the regular season. Marshawn Lynch had 493 of his 1,306 rushing yards during the winning streak and Russell Wilson 278 of his 849 yards, which led all quarterbacks this season.
Saturday night, the Panthers will attempt to run the ball against a Seahawks defense that allowed averages of 81.3 rushing yards per game (No. 3 in the league) and 3.4 yards per carry (second-lowest in the league) during the regular season. The Seahawks also led the NFL in average rushing yards per game (172.6) and per carry (5.3), while the Panthers allowed averages of 112.0 rushing yards per game and 4.5 per carry.
So it goes without saying that the team which plays the best defense and does the most-productive job of running the ball will win Saturday night's game and advance to the NFC Championship game. If it's the Seahawks, the game will be played at CenturyLink Field a week from Sunday. If it's the Panthers, the title game will be played in either Green Bay or Dallas depending on which team wins this Sunday at Lambeau Field.
And the reason it goes without saying is that it's also the way the games between the Seahawks and Panthers have ended the past three seasons. In October, the Seahawks ran for 119 yards and 4.6-yard average, while Bruce Irvin got to Cam Newton on back-to-back plays to sack the Panthers' final possession – and last chance to drive to a go-ahead TD. In the 2013 season opener in Charlotte, the Seahawks won 12-7, despite rushing for only 70 yards because All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas forced a fumble that tackle Tony McDaniel recovered to end the Panthers' final drive and Wilson had the first 300-yard passing performance of his career – including 43-yard TD pass to Jermaine Kearse for the winning score in the fourth quarter. And in Week 5 in 2012, the Seahawks ran for only 98 yards in their 16-12 victory, but the defense sacked Newton five times and held the Panthers to 190 yards and a field goal.
"It's always a tough game against them because you've got great defensive players on both sides," Wagner said.
But, as the past six games by the Seahawks and the past five games by the Panthers have shown, that was then and this is now.
"That's how it goes," All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said. "They made the playoffs, they're making a run. We're making a run. So it should be fun, and there will be a whole lot of defense."