CHARLOTTE – Tight end Greg Olsen always embraces the challenge of facing one of the NFL's elite teams, especially when the schedule sets up for the Panthers to host a heavyweight.
"We know how good they are on both sides of the ball, just a few months removed from the Super Bowl," said Olsen, whose Panthers will welcome the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. "It's going to be a great game and a great atmosphere."
Following narrow losses to the Seahawks at home each of the last two seasons, the Panthers are hoping the third time is the charm.
"We've come up short against them the last two years," Olsen said. "We missed out on a couple of drives early when we had some decent field positon, and on that last drive we came up just a little short. We've got to execute. You can't hurt yourself against teams like this. They're too good."
In the season opener last year, Carolina went toe-to-toe with a Seattle team that had come within a whisker of reaching the NFC Championship the year before. Trailing 12-7 approaching the five-minute mark, the Panthers marched deep into Seattle territory but squandered the opportunity when DeAngelo Williams lost a fumble at the end of a long run at the 8-yard line.
The Panthers recovered to finish 12-4. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl.
In 2012, a rookie quarterback named Russell Wilson brought a .500 Seattle team to Bank of America Stadium for a Week 5 matchup with a Panthers team trying to gain footing following a 1-3 start. Trailing 16-12 nearing the four-minute mark, the Panthers couldn't convert a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line and fell short. As luck would have it, a Seahawks defender lined up on the wrong side of the formation but ended up being in the right place to thwart a play designed for Olsen.
While Wilson will travel across the country for the third consecutive season at the start his NFL career to face the Panthers in one of the states where he played college football, another former North Carolina State quarterback – Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers – hasn't visited Charlotte since his rookie year in 2004.
That puts an exclamation point on the fluky nature of Sunday's matchup. In the NFL's current scheduling formula (and in the formula the league used prior to the formation of the NFC South in 2002 for that matter), the maximum number of consecutive seasons one team can host a team from another division is three.
The maximum number of years that teams in the same conference but different divisions can play each other regardless of venue is infinite. After realignment in 2002 placed the Colts and Patriots in different divisions, they still squared off for consecutive seasons. That's because they both kept winning their divisions, and the formula kept matching them up based on their division finishes – though those games bounced back and forth between Indianapolis and Foxborough.
Even more unlikely, the Panthers played the Cardinals 10 times in 11 seasons from 2001-2011. Both teams bounced up and down their division standings, but they almost always mirrored each other.
Three times in franchise history, Carolina has visited a team not in its division three consecutive seasons. They were swept at Washington from 1999-2001, won two of three at Minnesota from 2000-02 and lost two of three at the New York Giants from 2008-10.
The only time the Panthers have hosted a team not in their division three consecutive seasons, the Dallas Cowboys swept through Carolina from 2005-07.
Sunday, the Panthers hope to avoid the same fate against Seattle.
"It would be a great win for us," Olsen said. "I'm sure the fans are excited."