Five Things to Watch: Panthers at Seahawks

1. CAN CAROLINA KEEP WILSON UNDER WRAPS? That's arguably the biggest question surrounding this week's game.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has made the Panthers pay in recent years with timely scrambles and big plays through the air in critical moments. The games between these two teams have been close, and Wilson's playmaking has been the difference.

"It was always the one big chunk play that did us in. But we got into the playoff game (last year) and we gave up two," head coach Ron Rivera said. "A lot of it has to do with Russell. He can extend (plays) – and it's part of what they practice. If something goes on and he starts to move, guys go to certain spots. He creates.

"They want the ball in his hands in crunch time to let him create something."

Carolina's attack-minded, swarming defense knows how important it is to keep Wilson in the pocket, where he has been vulnerable so far this season. The Seahawks have allowed 22 sacks – the most in the NFL.

All of that said, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott ultimately will need his unit to be gap-sound and disciplined this week to come away with a victory at CenturyLink Field.

"Wilson gives you headaches. He drives you crazy. But a lot of respect for what he does and how he plays," McDermott said.

2. LUKE'S RETURN: Having a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year back in the lineup sure provides a boost heading into this challenging matchup.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly will return to action for the first time since suffering a concussion in the season opener. What does that mean for Carolina? Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis explains:

"When you have a guy like Luke on the field, it allows you to play even better. Do not get me wrong when I tell you A.J. (Klein) did a tremendous job.

"But having Luke Kuechly back just makes you a different team."

3. TWO TOUGH SEATTLE RUNNERS: Everyone knows how explosive running back Marshawn Lynch can be, and after battling a hamstring injury for a couple weeks, the Seahawks are planning to utilize a full-strength Lynch on Sunday.

But backup running back Thomas Rawls is a talented runner in his own right. The rookie from Central Michigan ranks 11th in the NFL with 326 rushing yards, 321 of which have come in the last three games.

Carolina's rush defense is sixth-best in the league (92 yards per game). Seattle is first in the league in rushing (142.4 yards per game).

Look for a big-time battle at the line of scrimmage Sunday.

"Marshawn is a stud. The other dude that has stepped up in there, Rawls, he's pretty doggone good too," Kuechly said. "He's done an excellent job. He's a low-to-the-ground runner. He's powerful. He's got speed. And he runs with a sense that he's got something to prove. I like seeing that."

4. PANTHERS' PASSING ATTACK: Whether it be quarterback Cam Newton or running back Jonathan Stewart toting the rock, Carolina has had a tough time running against a formidable Seattle front.

The Seahawks secondary featuring Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor has a well-deserved reputation, but the Panthers are going to need to find a way to produce chunk plays through the air. Newton has to be calculated against a defense that thrives on takeaways, and his receivers and tight ends need to make contested catches for him.

Additionally, the red zone hasn't been kind to Carolina against Seattle. That needs to change if the Panthers want a different end result.

5. RETURN GAME X-FACTOR: Seattle rookie Tyler Lockett wasted no time proving his worth as a return man. The speedster already has a kick return touchdown and punt return touchdown. Carolina will be on high alert when he gets the ball in his hands.

Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. has long been one of the league's best return men but he has yet to break a big one this year. An explosive special teams play could be the difference in what should be another tight game.


LAST TIME THEY PLAYED

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