Cheat Sheet: Experienced Seahawks will put an end to Panthers’ dream season

As the clock bled to 0:26 in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s wild-card matchup, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made his way up and down the sideline nodding his head. I was down there on the field as FOX’s reporter with postgame interview duties, and was watching with keen interest as to who does what in a precarious moment like a 27-yard field goal with the season — and a two-time NFC title defense — on the line.

As the Seahawks were getting their field-goal block group assembled in a huddle, Sherman tapped each player on the head, one by one, and whispered something. I leaned in; to no avail. After the game, in that mad scrum that occurs after a finish like the one we had Sunday, I was able to grab the man who’s made many a play (and headline) and ask what that was all about.

"I was telling everyone, ‘Let’s go, Champ. Let’s go, Champ. Let’s go, Champ,’" he said. "That’s what we are. We’re the champs."

And I’m having trouble writing off the champs this weekend. Every time they’ve been told they’re "done" — whether it was last year after their loss in Kansas City, or this year after their many fourth-quarter collapses during the first half of the season — they’ve found a way to rally back and do what "champs" do.

On Sunday, they were down 9-0 heading into the fourth quarter, on the road in a hostile, freezing environment, playing in a game that started at 10 a.m. Seattle time. The deck was stacked against them. And yet, they continued to hit on 17 until finally, they got blackjack, a lead and found a way to escape with a win. On paper, as that clock bled to 0:26 and other network reporters started to walk to the Vikings sideline to jockey for postgame interviews with the home team, the Seahawks were not supposed to find a way. But they did. They’ve done it over the past four years, time and time again.

NFL SUPER BOWL CENTRAL

Now, they head to Carolina to face a team that beat them in Seattle in Week 6, that they struggled to stop in that game, and that’s rolling as a 15-1 Super Bowl favorite out of the NFC. But this isn’t the same Seahawks team as in Week 6. Cary Williams won’t be suiting up at cornerback, Jeremy Lane will, and the offensive line is playing an entirely different brand of football than it did in Week 6. And this, most importantly, isn’t October. It’s January. A time when the "champs" find a way to come back and beat the Packers in an NFC championship game they’re trailing late in, top the 49ers in an NFC championship game that seems to be slipping away, and beat the Broncos by more than 30 points in a Super Bowl in which they’re listed as underdogs.

Whether Marshawn Lynch is active on Sunday or not, I’d expect the Seahawks offense to utilize more read-option and more bootlegs — getting Russell Wilson on the move — more than they did in Seattle earlier this season. And I’d expect the Seahawks’ front four, dominant against the Vikings on Sunday, to be in Cam Newton’s face from the start. It’ll be a true battle, and perhaps a bigger clash of physicality than either the NFC championship game or Super Bowl. But thinking of Sherman, walking that sideline with those confident nods, telling his teammates they were the champs, when just about everyone else in America was ready to write them off — I have too hard of a time doing just that now.

The Panthers have come an awfully long way. They’ll get theirs eventually. I’m not sure I see it happening with these Seahawks in their way.

CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION

Seahawks rookie Tyler Lockett won multiple Special Teams Player of the Month awards this season. He’s just the second rookie to do that. Who was the first in 1995?

Now, on to my picks!

Kansas City at New England: The past six months I’ve heard it time and time again from members of the NFL press corps: "The Patriots are banged up" … "They’re too injured". Well, as the Patriots head into Saturday afternoon’s clash with the Chiefs, I look at the two rosters, and it appears the latter might actually be the more injured team. Jeremy Maclin’s gruesome ankle injury makes him a game-time decision for Saturday, Justin Houston didn’t look right against the Texans, and Tamba Hali is battling a nagging thumb injury. Kansas City’s won 11 straight games and looked dominant against the Houston Texans last week. The Patriots aren’t the Houston Texans. You won’t see Jamie Collins taking any direct snaps on Sunday.

The Pick: Patriots 27, Chiefs 16

Green Bay at Arizona: The last time these teams played, the Cardinals owned the Packers in the desert, walloping Green Bay on national TV. The bye week gave Arizona seven more days to rest, meaning the Cards most likely should have both Michael Floyd and rookie linebacker Markus Golden on the field Saturday. Green Bay isn’t nearly as healthy. Davante Adams is out, David Bakhtiari missed the wild-card round with a bad ankle, and both the Packers’ young rookie defensive backs (Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins) got hurt last week. Aaron Rodgers has won a Super Bowl and done damage on the road in the past, while Carson Palmer’s still never won a playoff game. I think the latter gets over the hump and the Cardinals advance to the NFC championship game.

The Pick: Cardinals 34, Packers 24

Seattle at Carolina: You can have your Cowboys-Eagles or Bears-Packers. This is the rivalry to watch in the NFC for the next several years. They’ve played every season Wilson’s been a pro and 2015 was the first time Carolina got the best of Seattle. This will be the hardest-fought battle this side of Bengals-Steelers and should include a similar kind of intensity. I’ve been a huge supporter of this Panthers squad all season and think they’ve got the best quarterback and linebacker in the NFL. And yet, I’ve got the Seahawks winning this one.

The Pick: Seahawks 20, Panthers 16

Pittsburgh at Denver: The Steelers got the best of the Broncos a few weeks back, nearly derailing Denver’s season and putting things in flux in the AFC West. What a difference a few weeks make. The Patriots lost two bad ones in the season’s final two weeks, the Bengals fell to the Broncos on a Monday night, and here we are, with Denver as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Peyton Manning will start, but don’t think Gary Kubiak will leave him in there if he struggles early. Denver’s the only team left with two viable options at quarterback, and I don’t think the Broncos are willing to both live and die with Manning. Either way, the Broncos defense is what will win the day. They’ll stack the box, make an injured Ben Roethlisberger beat them deep and contain the running game. Don’t expect a lot of points.

The Pick: Broncos 19, Steelers 13

READER EMAIL OF THE WEEK

Peter,

NFL RETURNS TO L.A.

Rams to LA. My friends and I were discussing it and had a great one for you. Who’s the first player to show up in a network sitcom doing a cameo? My guess was Todd Gurley. My buddy said Chris Long. Your pick?

Zack, Bakersfield, California

Zack,

I loved that I came up in this discussion. Flattered, honored and excited to share my entry with you guys. Your pick is Johnny Hekker. Yes, Johnny Hekker, the punter. Hekker is a great dude who has that goofy sitcom neighbor personality and can easily mix it up with the guys from "Big Bang Theory" or "The Grinder." I’m going with Hekker — not Gurley, Long, or a quarterback to be named later — to be the first player to show up on "Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life".

CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER

Kansas City Chiefs kick returner Tamarick Vanover won it twice in 1995.