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Five Things To Watch: Panthers vs. Seahawks

Posted Jan 16, 2016

Both defenses tasked with containing dynamic, elusive quarterbacks when Cam Newton and Russell Wilson square off.

1. MARQUEE QUARTERBACK DUEL: Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are two of the brightest young stars in the NFL, and they entered the postseason at the top of their respective games.

In the last seven games of the regular season, Newton – the frontrunner for league MVP – compiled 24 total touchdowns and just one interception. In that same span, Wilson produced 25 total touchdowns and one interception.

In recent meetings between these teams, the end result has essentially boiled down to these multidimensional playmaking quarterbacks. Which one can make that special play late in the game to push their team to victory?

As Newton said, this Divisional Playoff is simply must-see TV.

2. CAN DEFENSES KEEP THEM CONTAINED? Newton and Wilson present so many unique challenges because of their ability to extend plays.

Newton is a powerful force with designed runs, and he can shrug off defenders in the pocket to keep plays alive. Wilson is quick and agile, and he’s always shown a knack for slipping out of trouble (see the fumbled snap that turned into 35-yard completion last week at Minnesota).

"He makes magic out of nothing," said cornerback Josh Norman, whose words could describe both Wilson and Newton.

They’re tough to contain, but that’s the goal for both defenses.

Linebacker Bruce Irvin has helped Seattle’s cause in that respect, recording seven sacks in four games against the Panthers.

Carolina’s Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short sacked Wilson twice when the teams met in Week 6, and that interior rush will be critical.

"We have to contain the rush lanes, and we know Wilson is a spin backwards kind of guy," Short said. "We have to stay disciplined, stay on the ground, and everybody needs to rush to the ball.

"It’s tough. You want to keep him in the pocket and collapse the pocket. He’s a guy that finds a way, but as a defense we have to stop him. We have to rush together."

Because once Wilson escapes pressure, he and his receivers look for big plays down the field.

"It’s very difficult. You have to plaster," Norman said. "These plays can be like three seconds but when that guy gets out, he extends that sucker to like 10. You just have to be on your guys as much as you can just knowing where everybody is. Scan the field knowing that he is going to get out of the pocket and make guys move. The wide receivers are taught and trained that once the play breaks down, stick and go high. We just have to stick and go high with them."

3. FRESH LEGS: Both offenses are boosted by the return of their powerful workhorse running backs.

Jonathan Stewart, who finished as the NFL’s eighth leading rusher with 989 yards, is ready to roll after missing three games with a foot injury. Marshawn Lynch hasn’t played since Week 10, but he looks ready to return from an abdomen injury.

These bulldozing runners have a tough task in front of them. Seattle allowed the fewest rushing yards during the regular season – 81.5 yards per game. The Seahawks haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 27 games, postseason included. Vikings star Adrian Peterson, the 2015 rushing leader, posted just 45 yards on 23 attempts against Seattle in the Wild Card round.

Carolina’s rush defense is a force to be reckoned with as well. The Panthers finished fourth in the NFL allowing just 88.4 rush yards per game.

"We’ve got to rally around the ball," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "(Lynch) is a tough guy to bring down. We understand that we have to make sure we’re playing good team defense."

4. TAKING THEIR SHOTS: These teams mirror each other in their approach – limit mistakes, rely on the rushing attack and stingy defense to control the game. But both offenses have the ability to take a well-timed shot downfield for chunk plays.

Wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. – Carolina’s leader in touchdown receptions with 10 – made several big plays over the top throughout the year and averaged 16.8 yards per catch. Tight end Greg Olsen, a nightmare for Seattle in Week 6, compiled 20 receptions over 20 yards – the sixth most in the NFL.

As a team, Seattle finished with the sixth most passing plays over 20 yards with 60. And proper attention must to be paid to wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who led the league with 14 touchdown catches during the regular season, 11 of which came in the last six games.

5. SPECIAL TEAMS’ FOCUS: Seattle’s Wild Card win over Minnesota was a reminder of the importance of special teams in the playoffs. A missed 27-yard field goal ended one season and saved another.

The returners have game-breaking ability. Seattle rookie Tyler Lockett is headed to the Pro Bowl as a returner, and Carolina veteran Ted Ginn has been one of the league’s most dangerous return men for years.

The Panthers’ field goal team will have to keep a close eye on Richard Sherman, a rusher off the edge who nearly blocked a field goal against the Vikings. Kicker Graham Gano, who has had four field goals blocked this year, missed an extra point during Carolina’s Week 6 victory at Seattle, a kick that Sherman came close to getting a hand on.

"(Special teams coordinator) Bruce (DeHaven) gave us a little note," Carolina special teams ace Colin Jones said. "He’s coached in 31 playoff games, and he said in about 10 of them, it’s come down to a special teams play. In these close football games, you’ve got to be able to gain something somewhere, and special teams is a great chance to do that."