If the opponent for Saturday night's divisional playoff game at CenturyLink Field looks familiar, it's because the Seahawks have played the Carolina Panthers three times in the past three regular seasons.
All three games were played in Charlotte, and the Seahawks won all three with strong defensive efforts – 13-9 in Week 8 this season; 12-7 in their opener in 2013; and 16-12 in Week 5 in 2012.
Saturday night's game will be played in Seattle because the Seahawks hold the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. And the opponent is the Panthers because the NFC South champions and No. 4 seed defeated the No. 5 seed Arizona Cardinals 27-16 in a wild-card matchup in Charlotte on Saturday; and the No. 6 seed Detroit Lions lost to the NFC East champion and No. 3 seed Cowboys 24-20 in Dallas on Sunday.
So while the Seahawks are hosting the Panthers on Saturday night, the NFC North champion and No. 2 seed Packers will play the Cowboys in Green Bay on Sunday. The winners of those games will meet Jan. 18 in the NFC Championship game.
The Panthers also joined the Seahawks as the only teams to capture their division with a losing record and then win in the wild-card round. The 7-9 Seahawks did it in 2010, when they upset the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in a wild-card game in Seattle.
But the Seahawks' familiarity with the Panthers doesn't go as deep as you might expect.
There's still All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, who seems to make every tackle and against the Cardinals also had an interception and tipped another pass that was picked off. There's still Cam Newton, the athletic but also mercurial QB who's rarely the same from play to play let alone game to game. There's still running back Jonathan Stewart, an all-state performer at Timberline High School in Lacey who had more rushing yards over the last month of the regular season than anyone but the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray and added 123 yards against the Cardinals. There's still Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who caught 84 passes for 1,008 yards during the regular season and had three receptions for 37 yards against the Cardinals.
But there's also a rookie class that includes five players who are starting now that weren't in Week 8 against the Seahawks: cornerback Bene' Benwikere, free safety Tre Boston and strong-side linebacker Adarius Glanton on defense; right guard Trai Turner and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on offense. Left guard Andrew Norwell also is a rookie; and defensive end Kony Ealy and wide receiver Philly Brown, who left Saturday's game with a shoulder injury, are two more rookies who have made contributions.
The way Saturday's game played out, however, was eerily similar to the Seahawks' two games against the Cardinals during their six-game winning streak to close the regular season. With the Cardinals still down to third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley and without leading rusher Andre Ellington, the Panthers held them to an NFL playoff record-low 78 yards. The Seahawks had held the Cardinals to 204 yards and a field goal in Seattle and 216 yards and two field goals in Arizona.
And the outcome of the Panthers' first playoff victory since 2005 also set up what should be another defensive battle at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night. The Seahawks led the NFL in average points and yards allowed during the regular season. The Panthers were No. 20 in average points allowed and No. 10 in average yards allowed; up from No. 27 the last time they faced the Seahawks. And they allowed an average of 10.8 points during their four-game winning streak to close the regular season.
"Maybe they caught us at a bad time. This team is playing better now than we've played all year long," said strong safety Roman Harper, the only Panther remaining from the 2005 team that beat the New York Giants and Chicago Bears in the playoffs and then lost to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game in Seattle.
The Cardinals' touchdowns on Saturday came after a muffed punt return and an interception that was returned 50 yards.
Seattle Seahawks team photographer Rod Mar continues his Eye On the Hawks series traveling with the team to chronicle the game with the Carolina Panthers.
"Of course, we still had some dumb mistakes," Harper told reporters after the game. "Why? We're Carolina; we like to keep it close again. I'm just really happy about this team and how we're playing. We're coming together at the right time, and we're making plays, man."
No one made more plays than Kuechly, who was named All-Pro on Friday along with Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner; and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis. Kuechly had 10 tackles to go along with his interception and pass he tipped that was intercepted in the end zone by Boston. Davis had seven tackles, including two for losses.
"Those guys were running around making plays in the passing game and making plays in the running game," Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald told reporters after the game. "We weren't able to get the running game going. When you're one-dimensional and have to throw the football and you get behind, it's tough to succeed in this league."
And that's also how the Seahawks succeeded in overtaking the Cardinals to win the NFC West. During their six-game winning streak, the Seahawks held opponents to averages of 6.5 points and 66.0 rushing yards.
That also was the Seahawks' approach during their bye week when asked about who they might play in the divisional round. As has been the case all season, their concerns are more about how they play than who they play.
"I don't care who we play," Wagner said. "I just know they've got to come here. That's all that matters to me."
Offered defensive end Cliff Avril, "That's all we worry about, is ourselves. You can't control who you're going to play. So for us, it's going to be the same thing we've done the past 16 games, and that's worry about ourselves, try to better ourselves and it's all about us when we play whoever it is that we play."
Then there was this from leading receiver Doug Baldwin, "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter who we play. It's about us in this locker room. And that's really all it comes down to."