Three Key Matchups for Sunday's game Between the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers

Three matchups that may decide the outcome of Sunday's game between the Seahawks and Panthers.

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The Seahawks return home Sunday following a tough loss in Cincinnati confident that they've put that game behind them and moved on to their Week 6 game against the unbeaten Carolina Panthers.

"We all showered up and forgot about that, so we're on to the next," safety Earl Thomas said.

But while the Seahawks can't dwell on the fourth-quarter lead they gave up in Cincinnati, there is plenty to take from that game, both good and bad, that could impact them this week and beyond. The offensive line played as well as it had all season for three quarters, and a defense that had done a lot of good things in the previous two games was again in control until that fateful fourth quarter. More than anything, the lesson learned last week is that the Seahawks have to get back to one of the most important tenets of a Pete Carroll-coached team: finishing. The offensive line that was so good for most of the game didn't play as well in the fourth quarter, nor did the defense, Russell Wilson, special teams, etc.

"We played a great first half, a great third quarter and we need to finish better," Wilson said. "You get two more first downs, the game's most likely over. That's the way we look at it, so we're preparing for that. We're preparing to finish better and I thought we started pretty good."

Beyond the big-picture need to be better in the fourth quarter, here are three matchups that could help decide the game:

1. Seattle's ball security vs. an opportunistic Panthers defense.

The Seahawks haven't been terrible in the turnover department, having given the ball away seven times in five games, but they know they can be better with the ball, and that they'll need to be against a very good Carolina defense.

The Panthers are No. 1 in the league with a plus-8 turnover differential, and have forced 11 turnovers, including eight interceptions.

"They're killing it," Carroll said. "They're picking off balls at a great rate, it's really obvious that they're all over it. The rush is good, but on the back end, Josh Norman is having a great start to the season. He's all over stuff. He's got four picks, he could have had six by now. When Charles Tillman is on the other side, he's a playmaker and he's a tremendous forced fumble guy, he's the best in the NFL in doing that. He's teaching Josh how to do it too, they're punching out the ball and stuff, it has really fit together for them well."

Yet even if the Panthers are one of the best teams in the NFL at forcing turnovers this season, the Seahawks know they can't be timid on offense. Most of the matchups between Carolina and Seattle have gone down to the wire, so playing it safe might not be enough.

"Not playing scared," Wilson said when asked what the offense has to do against Carolina. "I think when you play against a tough defense like the Carolina Panthers, it's very similar to how we practice and the things that they can do. I think you have to be aware of Peanut (Charles) Tillman over there and how he knocks the ball out, he's famous for that. I think just having high regard for the football and understanding what we're trying to do. Being aware of situations, great situational football, knowing when to get down, all those things I think are vital to the success of taking care of the football, but also not playing timid, by any means. You have to stay in attack mode, that's kind of our philosophy and we're going to go after it."

And yes, the turnover battle is still very meaningful even if the Seahawks currently have a negative turnover differential in victories and a positive one in losses. As strange as that stat is, it's not a trend anyone expects to hold up for very long.

"It's a very unusual season for us to have two games where we win and we're in the minus and three games where we don't and we're in the plus," Carroll said. "That doesn't even, I can't register that. That doesn't fit in my brain. I don't know that. Years and years and years, and it doesn't fit. All I think of is that's going to flip flop the very next chance we go out, and it hasn't yet. We'll look forward to that, and we'll see what happens this weekend."

2. Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. SS Kam Chancellor and the rest of Seattle's secondary.

First let's clear this up in case you missed it from Carroll earlier in the week. Those two touchdowns Tyler Eifert scored last week were not Kam Chancellor's responsibility, despite what it might have looked like on T.V.

That being said, Eiftert did catch some passes with Chancellor in coverage, and in general, the Seahawks' strong safety tends to spend a lot of time covering tight ends when facing teams with prolific pass-catchers at that position, which brings us to the Panthers and Greg Olsen.

Olsen is coming off the first 1,000-yard season of his career, and is off to another good start, leading Carolina with 17 catches for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

"Olsen is Cam (Newton)'s go-to guy," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "They connect a lot… He's a really good receiving tight end."

A week after Eifert had eight catches for 90 yards on Seattle, taking care of Olsen will be a big focus for Chancellor and the rest of Seattle's defense. 

"Whenever the tight end has such an effective game, we're going to look at the strong safety matchup," Carroll said after making sure to clarify Chancellor's lack of culpability for the two touchdowns. "He had that great opportunity on the corner route, which was a fantastic throw and catch. He was inches from making that play. I think he was challenged. With Greg Olsen, who is a fantastic tight end, and a prime target for Cam Newton, he's up against the challenge again, so we'll see how that goes, but he's the best there is at taking on those kinds of challenges."

The good news for the Seahawks is that their defense has for the most part kept Olsen in check in previous meetings. His four-catch, 58-yard effort in the postseason was his best game against Seattle, and in three regular-season meetings, he has a total of eight catches for 109 yards and no scores.

3. The Seahawks pass rush vs. Carolina's line and Cam Newton.

The Seahawks know that if they don't stop Cam Newton, it's going to be tough to slow the Panthers offense. And while one of the biggest priorities will be to keep him in the pocket to prevent him from making big plays in the running game, Newton is more than capable of hurting teams with his arm if given time to throw.

The Seahawks have had an effective pass rush this season, disrupting opposing quarterbacks more than their modest sack total (10) would indicate, but so far the Panthers have been good at keeping Newton upright, allowing just seven sacks, tied for the fifth fewest in the NFL. Rushing Newton effectively doesn't just mean beating a blocker and getting to him, it also means keeping him from escaping pressure and making a big play either as a runner or by buying time and finding a big throw downfield. And even when pass-rushers do get to Newton, it's no guarantee they bring him down thanks to his size.

"Cam's one of the toughest quarterbacks to tackle," said defensive end Michael Bennett. "He's physical, he's just great at what he does.

"He's going to make some big plays, the thing you have to do is just control him. Make sure he doesn't make too big of plays. We have to corral him and keep him in the pocket and make him beat us with his arm." 

If anyone seems to have a knack for getting to Newton, it's linebacker Bruce Irvin, who has five sacks in three games against Carolina. Irvin's key for bringing down Carolina's big, athletic quarterback?

"He can't run without his legs, so that's our main point—try to hit him down low, wrap his legs up," Irvin said. "Once you do that, it's hard to run."

They first met in 2000. They last met last year in NFC Divisional Playoff. See the photos from both games and every game in between before the Seahawks and Panthers face-off this Sunday at CenturyLink Field. 

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