Oregon Sports News writers Julian Rogers and Jessica Ridpath discuss and predict the week 13 matchup between the Seattle Seahawks (7–3–1) and the Carolina Panthers (4–7).
When: 5:30 p.m. PT, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Wash.
Rogers: The Seahawks have an uncanny knack for losing games that don’t end up hurting them much. Sunday’s loss in Tampa, however, might sting a little bit. They have now slid behind the New York Giants in the win/loss columns, but still hold on to the second seed in the conference because the Giants cannot overtake the Dallas Cowboys in their own division.
Records aside, the Seahawks remain the second-best team in the NFC conference behind the Cowboys and their division is crumbling. The rest of the NFC West is no threat. It is easily the least competitive division in the NFL.
Disturbing signs? A few: The Seahawks did not convert their first successful third down until just a little over two minutes left in the game. The porous offensive line lived up to its descriptor by allowing six sacks and offering Thomas Rawls a mere 3.16 yards per carry. The Seahawks coughed up three turnovers during the game, including two interceptions by Russell Wilson — doubling his season total, which now stands at four. All of that adds up to an offensive output of a mere three points in their 5 – 14 loss.
Jess, does the Seahawks’ return to offensive befuddlement signal the start of a late-season slide or was this game just a one-time letdown they’ll correct against the previously disappointing but lately resurgent Panthers?
Ridpath: Even championship teams have bad games. So I’d be willing to call this a one-time letdown. Except that I can’t forget how (bad) the Seahawks offense looked in their week-two loss to the Rams. Or in their week-seven tie with the Cardinals. Or when they fell to the Saints in week eight.
So, it’s not so much a late-season slide as an offensive ineptness that tends to rear its ugly head when the blue birds are forced to leave their nest.
Looking at those three disappointing road games alongside last Sunday’s stinker in Tampa, one offensive stat jumps out at me: Seattle’s third down conversions (or lack thereof). Thirteen third downs made in four games? A mere 26.5% success rate? That struck me as pretty pitiful. So I looked a little closer:
Currently ranked 26th in the league in third down conversion percentage (35.04%), Seattle is not even within spitting distance of its performance on third down last season (45.80%). And even if you look exclusively at their home games, their success rate on third down (39.29%) wouldn’t place them in the top 15 this season.
Those aren’t signs of a one-time letdown. Those are signs of a systemic problem—one that will only get tougher to overcome in the road games Seattle can likely anticipate in the post-season.
Julian, given the Hawks’ relative lack of success on the road (the Post-Election Miracle in Foxborough aside), they are lucky to be facing the Panthers at home this week. That said, Carolina’s 16th-ranked defense will no doubt note the damage done by Tampa Bay’s oppressive pass rush last week. Will they be able to wreak the same havoc on Seattle’s home turf?
Rogers: Home cooking may not be enough to help the Seahawks sketchy, patchwork offensive line hold off the Panthers’ pass rush and run defense. With center Justin Britt missing last week’s game, the Seahawks had to make do without their most consistent offensive line starter. Rookie Joey Hunt filled in with so-so results and may have to do so again.
The Panthers, however, have a worse road record (1–4) than the Seahawks (2–3–1). They may be looking to get well against the Seahawks, but their success will most likely be in their ability to stop the run, where they currently rank second in the league. The Panthers are near the bottom of the league (29th) in pass defense, which accounts for much of their 4–7 record.
The Panthers have won the last two games against the Seahawks, but I don’t think that matters much this time. What’s most remarkable about this 2015 NFC Championship Game rematch are the ways in which both teams are glaringly different this year compared to last: The Seahawks can no longer rely on a dominating run game to close out opponents. Similarly, the Panthers, in the post Josh Norman era, are no longer sure bets to stifle opponents passing games.
This obvious weakness, going against Seattle’s newfound reliance on the passing game points to a decided edge for the Seahawks on Sunday. The absence of stellar middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (concussion) also leaves a large void in the previously formidable Panthers defense. It will be up to Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Kawann Short to lead the unit.
Jess, the Panthers were supposed to hit another gear this year on offense with the return of Kelvin Benjamin. Do you buy the whispers that Cam Newton has regressed?
Ridpath: Those whisperers love to point out that Newton has gone from league MVP to bottom-tier quarterback (he’s currently ranked 27th in passer rating). But nope, I’m not ready to say that he (as an individual) isn’t capable of the same magic he brought to the field last year, when he led the Panthers to 17 wins and a trip to the Super Bowl.
But I will say that Carolina’s offense (as a unit) has regressed. And their regression looks a lot like what the Seahawks have been experiencing: an unreliable, injury-plagued offensive line and a subsequent decline in their rushing attack. Case in point: running back Jonathan Stewart is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this season (a career low).
The other challenge the Panthers face this year is the burden of expectation. After last year’s stellar season, the pressure to perform has skyrocketed. Failing to live up to inflated expectations is what’s fueling some of those whispers we’ve been hearing about Newton.
Julian, was Cam overhyped or is he still the almost undefendable headache for the Seahawks this Sunday?
Rogers: Cam has found it pretty rough going historically against the Seahawks. His four-game average against Seattle: 15/28, 177 YDs, 0.5 TD, 0.8 INT (according to Pro Football Reference). Beyond that, his 2016 level of play is way off his 2015 high-water mark year when he led the Panthers to a 15–1 record. Even in his best years, Cam’s completion percentage (career average: 59.1%, career high for a season : 61.7%) are well below NFL leaders. For comparison, Aaron Rodgers has been taking tons of criticism for his play this year and his completion percentage in 2016 is 64.4. Russell Wilson’s is 64.7.
While never a very accurate passer, Cam Newton is still a threat as a runner. He has five rushing touchdowns this year and average 4.2 per attempt, compared to Wilson who has only mustered one touchdown and 3.4 yards per attempt.
Expect more rushing from both quarterbacks on Sunday as Newton continues his penchant for carrying the ball and Wilson returns to more running as a less-hobbled quarterback. Newton will be more effective at running the ball than Wilson, but DangerRuss should have much more success through the air than Cam.
These two teams always play close games. In their four meetings, the largest margin of victory is five points. I expect another close one with Seattle edging out on top. Prediction: Seattle 24, Carolina 20.
Ridpath: I think you’re right that the passing edge goes to Seattle. And given the differential in Carolina’s effectiveness on defense (ranked 2nd against the run and 29th against the pass, as you pointed out), I would expect Darrell Bevell to build a game plan around Wilson’s arm.
The key question—and the one that’s been looming over every Seahawks game since the beginning of last season—is how will the offensive line perform? I consulted my Magic 8 Ball and was told “Reply hazy try again.” That seems about right.
If the Seahawks were facing the Panthers on the road, I’d have to give this one to Carolina. But Seattle hasn’t surrendered a game at home all season. That said, the Hawks fell to the Panthers at home last October. It’s a tough call. But my hunch is that Jimmy Graham will be a deciding factor. After three mid-season games with 100 or more receiving yards, he’s averaged about 50 yards per game over the last three weeks. He’s due for another big day, with at least one touchdown. Prediction: Seattle 28, Carolina 24.
Here’s what we were right and wrong about last week.
What he got right: I pointed out the dangers of Bucs receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate. Both scored touchdowns against the Seahawks. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the foresight to know that the Seahawks would fail to generate any offense against the middling Buccaneers defense.
What he got wrong: I picked the Seahawks to overcome the Buccaneers on the road, despite my hunch that the blue birds were due for a letdown. Lesson learned. Again. I’m 5–6 on the season.
What she got right: Despite being plagued by injuries, I expected Seattle’s defense would bring their usual toughness. After stumbling in the first quarter, they kept the Tampa Bay scoreless for the rest of the game.
What she got wrong: The game winner, keeping me even with Julian at 5–6. I predicted a much higher-scoring game and a superior performance in the air from Wilson. Wrong and wrong: The two teams combined for a mere 19 points, while Winston bested Wilson by 70 yards and two touchdowns.