The 10-3 Seahawks travel to Charlotte to face the Panthers on Sunday. Here are Five Things to Watch:
The Russell Wilson Problem
The Seahawks are one of the NFC's best teams, and Russell Wilson plays a huge part in Seattle's success.
This season is no different for Wilson, who is once again in the midst of the MVP conversation. That's because Wilson ranks in the top 10 league-wide in essentially every quarterback category, including passing touchdowns (T-2nd), passing yards (8th) and passer rating (5th).
"He's playing at a championship level," Panthers interim head coach Perry Fewell said. "Just watching him on tape and watching his play, you're saying, 'Geez, I hope he has a bad day.' He's playing at MVP level right now."
But if Wilson isn't having a bad day, what's the key to slowing him down?
Safety Tre Boston said the most important way to stop Wilson through the air is by stopping him on the ground.
"We haven't sugarcoated it all year, it's all been about stopping the run," Boston explained. "We have to go in there, we've got to play gap sound football. We've got to play Carolina football. It's easier said than done, but we have to go in there knowing that if we stop the run, it gives us a better chance of winning the ball game."
Part of the reasoning behind that approach is because of Wilson's ability to extend plays with his legs, but it's also because of how the Seahawks game plan around his running ability. Seattle's offense heavily relies on a number of zone reads, bootlegs and run-pass options to allow Wilson the ability to run or pass.
Carolina has had success against mobile quarterbacks like Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson this season, but Boston, who's played Wilson each season of his six-year career, knows what's in store this Sunday.
"What he's done with this team has been incredible," Boston said. "To see it, to watch it on film, we have a challenge ahead of us."
Stopping the run to stop the pass
Well, if Boston and the Panthers D want to stop the run, it'll start with slowing down Seahawks running back Chris Carson. The 5-11, 222-pound runner has already racked up 1,057 yards and five touchdowns on the ground this season.
"I think Chris Carson's a big, physical back. He does a lot of things well," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "I think he plays physical. I think he runs hard, and he's a guy that once he gets in space, he can be a problem, too."
Last week, Carson's complementary rusher, Rashaad Penny, was lost for the season with an ACL injury, so it seems like Carson will be carrying the load against the Panthers.
"He's a between the tackles back, plays behind his pads, runs behind his pads, physical," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. "He's looking to run through you as opposed to running around you."
The Panthers have struggled to stop the run all year, ranking fourth in the league in rushing yards allowed (1,809). If the key to stopping Wilson through the air is truly slowing down the ground game, the Panthers will have their work cut out for them on Sunday.
Early in the week, Fewell was asked about managing star players workloads at this point in the season when there isn't much left on the line. Fewell's response detailed the need to strike a balance between playing to win and evaluating younger talent.
"I want to put the team in position to win, and the players we put on the field we feel like are guys that can win for us," Fewell said. "If some other younger players start to get more reps, then that's their evaluation period also, and we can see if they can help us win in the near future."
With that being said, the biggest question will be how much running back Christian McCaffrey see the field on Sunday. If it were up to him, the answer would be every single play, but McCaffrey is the future of the franchise, and losing him to a late-season injury during meaningless minutes would be a hard pill to swallow.
You can't shut a competitor like McCaffrey down completely with three full games left, but the Panthers may attempt to at least manage his workload a little bit. We saw running back Reggie Bonnafon get a few early carries last week against the Falcons as well as wide receiver Curtis Samuel, so it looks like new offensive coordinator Scott Turner certainly has McCaffrey's long-term wellbeing in mind.
Then again, the Panthers offense goes as McCaffrey goes, so we'll have to wait until Sunday to see what really happens.
A chance to play spoiler
The Panthers may not have anything to play for this weekend in terms of post season success, but there's certainly a lot on the line for the Seahawks.
At 10-3, Seattle is trailing the 49ers in the race for the NFC West crown, but the path to the division title and a first-round bye is clear enough – all they have to do is win out. With that being said, expect Seattle to give the Panthers everything they've got on Sunday as they look to avoid being tripped up by the Panthers.
For the Panthers, that provides the opportunity to play spoiler for an opponent that Carolina has waged quite a few battles against in recent years. Six of the last eight matchups between the two teams have been decided by seven points or fewer.
Playing for pride
On top of the chance to knock off a semi-rival, Panthers players are finding a number of things to motivate them through the season's final three weeks. Don't expect to see anyone in blue and black giving up.
"I think there's still a lot to play for," McCaffrey said. "Personal pride, obviously. There's a lot of guys in this locker room that you still play for, too. If you step out on the football field, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to this organization and we owe it to this city and all the fans, too, to always give 100 percent, no matter what the circumstances are."
Earlier in the week, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy personally apologized to Panthers fans, assuring them that despite how angry they may be with this season's results, no one is hurting more than the players themselves. After all, it's their names on the field and in the news.
"You can give up, tuck your tail and say, 'Hey, we're getting ready for next season,'" McCoy explained. "Or you can have some pride as a man and just give it everything you got and see what happens."
Sounds like there's plenty still to play for in the Carolinas.
Carolina has played Seattle nine times since 2013. The Seahawks lead the all-time series 10-4.