Garafolo’s Sunday Wrap: Panthers eager for challenge vs. Seahawks

 

They were diplomatic, for the most part, in the Carolina Panthers’ locker room on Saturday night when asked whether they’d like to face the Green Bay Packers or the Seattle Seahawks in their next game.

"It’s going to be a challenge, no matter who we play," they said.

"They’re both great teams."

"No preference."

However, in being around the Panthers for a couple of days last week, in speaking to them and even in reading between the lines of their quotes a bit, one got the sense they’d really like to get a crack at the defending champs, especially after playing them so tightly the last three meetings.

If so, they got their wish. The Dallas Cowboys’ victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday locked Carolina into a trip to Seattle for a divisional-round matchup on Saturday night (8:15 p.m. ET on FOX). These teams will meet for the first time since Russell Wilson’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Luke Willson with 47 seconds remaining gave the Seahawks a much-needed 13-9 victory in Week 8 — the start of their 9-1 run to close the season.

LET'S GET WILD

"Should’ve got it! Should’ve got us that one!" Panthers starting cornerback Josh Norman exclaimed in an interview with FOX Sports following Saturday’s 27-16 wild-card victory over the Arizona Cardinals. "But at the end of the day, they made one more play than us. And (last year’s game) was 12-to-something."

It was a 12-7 Seahawks victory in the 2013 season opener in Carolina, to be exact, and it was very much like the game this year in that the Panthers hung tough until Seattle made the play to win it — a 43-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Jermaine Kearse with 10:13 to play over then-Panthers cornerback Josh Thomas.

So if the pattern holds, expect Saturday’s matchup to be a tight game and a defensive battle.

The teams also played a tight game in 2012, with the emerging Seahawks winning 16-12 in Charlotte. That’s three games decided by 13 total points. 

"They know that because they have a great defense and we have one, too. Anytime you have two great defenses going at each other, points are double (important)," Norman said. "You know it’ll be a low-scoring game. And we have to be mindful of that, understanding what those guys like to do. We’ve gotta get our sharks downhill and go attack."

The Seahawks, who opened as 11-point favorites for Saturday’s game, will be expecting the Panthers to be confident because of recent matchups. But Seattle has reasons of its own to be confident — the Seahawks have the home crowd for this game, they’ve been on a roll the past two months and they had a week to rest while the Panthers had to fend off the feisty Cardinals.

The Panthers needed a couple of turnovers deep in their own territory to finish off Arizona this past weekend, thanks to their own turnovers on offense. The Seahawks will be more careful with the football (their 14 giveaways in the regular season were the third-fewest in the league), so more sloppiness on offense will lead to a much less competitive game this time around for Carolina.

"We feel like our game is built for the road. We feel like we can go up and play," tight end Greg Olsen said, referring to the Panthers’ stingy defense and their running game, which has rushed for 100 or more yards in each of the team’s last 12 games. "But it’s going to be a challenge. … We’re going to have to play better. The self-inflicted penalties, the turnovers, you’re not going to beat good teams doing that. We have to get that stuff cleaned up."

They also have to make plays in the passing game. For that, they can look to Kelvin Benjamin, who provided one of the highlights of his rookie season when he leaped between Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas for a 51-yard catch in the teams’ Week 8 meeting. Benjamin’s production has slowed recently, though, as he has only one 100-yard game and one touchdown since the Panthers’ Week 12 bye.

But in the back of his mind is the confidence he can make plays against one of the best secondaries in the league.

"Definitely, definitely that, if we played them again, we would know a little bit of what they do, so that would be good," Benjamin said, though he was reluctant to gloat about his catch between the All-Pro cornerback and safety. "It was fun going up against Sherman. We competed all game and I had fun."

Saturday’s game won’t be fun for Carolina if the Panthers can’t continue to play the kind of stifling defense that allowed them to hold the Cardinals to 78 total yards — an NFL record for fewest yards ever allowed in a playoff game. Wilson isn’t Ryan Lindley, though, so Carolina shouldn’t expect to shut him and the Seahawks’ offense down like that. The last time these teams met, the Panthers held the Seahawks to 310 total yards. Seattle had a lower output in only two of the next nine games.

There are reasons to be hopeful on paper. However, this game will be played on the turf at CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks have won their last seven playoff games.

"You are playing a great team in front of a loud crowd," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said via the team on Sunday night. "Playing on the road late in the season at New Orleans and Atlanta should help us because they were basically playoff games for us. We’ll just have to deal with it. They are a good team wherever you play them."

FIVE THOUGHTS ON WILD-CARD WEEKEND

1. Anyone calling for Marvin Lewis’ firing is forgetting what the Cincinnati Bengals used to be. Lewis has taken the Bengals to the postseason six times in 12 seasons; the franchise had seven playoff appearances in the previous 35 seasons. Sure, the Bengals haven’t advanced. Yes, they got off to a hot start this season and were looking like one of the most complete teams in the league in September. But no, Lewis shouldn’t be fired. Who would replace him anyway? With all of the attractive jobs available right now (the San Francisco 49ers’ job, the Atlanta Falcons’ gig and the Chicago Bears’ opening are all terrific opportunities), who would jump at the chance to go to Cincinnati to take over the Bengals? So there’s just no logical reason why Lewis should be gone. His team played hard on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, A.J. Green was out, Rey Maualuga left the game early and — because this can’t be stated enough — Green didn’t play. Lewis deserves to return as coach. If the Bengals think otherwise, they should look at how the Bears have done since they fired a similarly consistent, 10-win coach in Lovie Smith.

2. Of the eight quarterbacks left in the postseason, only two have higher passer ratings in the playoffs than they do in the regular season over their careers: Russell Wilson and Joe Flacco. Wilson’s rating is 98.6 in the regular season and 99.7 in the playoffs. Flacco, whose 14th playoff game was Saturday’s victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, has an 84.6 rating in the regular season and an 88.2 rating in the playoffs. Sure, passer rating isn’t a flawless way of measuring quarterback performance, but it’s a pretty good measure. And that’s a good way of showing how Flacco has elevated his game in the games that matter most over his career. He played outstanding football in Pittsburgh and had one of the best throws of the weekend go to waste when Torrey Smith didn’t drag his second foot. Flacco is not the guy the New England Patriots want to see coming into town this weekend. Unfortunately for them, that will be the case. Should be interesting.

3. Can we please leave Leon Lett alone? Why must every mistake made by a Dallas Cowboys defensive player be compared with Lett’s Super Bowl XXVII faux pas and his chasing after the football in the snow on Thanksgiving Day more than 21 years ago? Demarcus Lawrence made a mistake on Sunday by not just falling to the ground after recovering the fumble late in the game. OK, fine. Other Cowboys players have made mistakes. Other players in the NFL, period, have made mistakes. They do it on a weekly basis. Poor Lett has to keep being lumped in with them. Enough already. But hey, good thing for Lawrence he came back to make the game-clinching play. That’s some serious resiliency right there. Good for him. And good for Lett, the Cowboys’ assistant defensive line coach, if he helped Lawrence make that play in any way.

4. One of the unsung heroes of wild-card weekend is Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb. Carolina’s Luke Kuechly said after the game it was Holcomb who told him the Cardinals would send Larry Fitzgerald on a vertical route up the left seam once they got into the red zone late in the game. Kuechly recognized the route, undercut it and tipped the ball so Tre Boston could intercept it to end the Cards’ comeback attempt. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Kuechly recognized another route he and his position coach Holcomb had identified out of the formation they ran. It was a quick hook to Fitzgerald, and when Kuechly saw it, he darted in front of Fitzgerald to pick off the pass. Without both of those plays, the Cardinals might have pulled off the stunning comeback. That’s good coaching. Speaking of which, why hasn’t Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott gotten any attention as a head-coaching candidate this year? Perhaps that’s coming.

5. OK, so this one had nothing to do with the games played on wild-card weekend, but it was a late piece of news on Friday. The Philadelphia Eagles handed the personnel department to Chip Kelly while changing Howie Roseman’s title from general manager to executive VP of football operations. The immediate response, particularly in Philadelphia, was that Kelly had out-muscled Roseman. But Kelly already had a huge impact on personnel. As he told the media during the season, he had control over the 53-man roster, and the free agents Roseman signed were the ones Kelly wanted. The only gray area was during the draft, where both had significant input. Now, there will be no question who was behind a move that does or doesn’t pan out. So Roseman got himself a raise and an extension, plus he now has deniability for the areas where the personnel department comes up short. He didn’t come out of this one badly at all, especially considering he still has a job in an organization that has quickly disposed of front-office members who have lost power struggles in the past.