The Seattle Seahawks should not be here.
They fought hard but ultimately were the second best team on the field last weekend in Minnesota. In the end, it all came down to a chip shot field goal with practically no time left on the clock. Victory seemed assured for the Vikings.
"It looked dire," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told Fox Sports. "They ran the clock down, took the field goal, short chip shot. But the football gods were with us today... 'Thank you, Jesus.' That [feeling] was immediate."
Kicker Blair Walsh pulled it wide left, and that is why the games are played. The Seahawks find themselves in the Divisional Round of the postseason on borrowed time, which is a dangerous proposition for their opponents, the Carolina Panthers.
The Seahawks had been playing better football than their record indicated all through the season, especially at the end when it counted most.
The team finished with a 10-6 record overall, winning six out of their last seven. Their team DVOA, which is a measure of the value of the team on offense and defense in terms of how and when yards and points are gained and conceded against their opponents, was the best in the league at 38.0 percent, significantly better than the second place Bengals at 27.9 percent.
In fact, the Seahawks notched the eighth best DVOA in NFL history this season and had the fifth largest gap between first and second according to Football Outsiders. The team’s weighted DVOA, a stat that puts higher importance on recent games in an effort to capture how the team is playing right now, was the third highest ever coming into the playoffs.
Stats aside, the Seahawks know that they will have to play much better this week against a 15-1 Carolina team than they did in Minnesota. While it is tempting to throw that game out because of the near-Arctic conditions, in truth the Vikings exposed the ineffectiveness of the Seahawks’ rush, an issue the team has had all season due to injuries.
The Seahawks will welcome the probable return of running back Marshawn Lynch this week, who could make the difference for them if he is back to his normal self. Lynch is primetime player in the postseason, and in eight starts has averaged 98 yards per game on 4.8 yards per carry, scoring eight times. If he is anything like his old self this game, Carolina will have its hands full trying to stop the passing and running game in tandem.
Coming off a well-earned bye, the Panthers enter this game still confident from their regular season success and their 27-23 Week 6 victory over Seattle. The nearly perfect Panthers were championed to new heights this season by quarterback Cam Newton. Newton had his best season as a pro, setting career highs in touchdowns, yards per attempt, Quarterback Rating and Total QBR and deserves to be league MVP this season considering the expectations, especially on offense, were very low for this Panthers team.
Cam’s biggest weapon, and the one Seahawks linebackers and safeties will have to have their eye on all game, is tight end Greg Olsen. Like Cam, Olsen had a career year when it came to yards and yards per catch, and his effectiveness between the hashes and in traffic was essential to Cam’s success. In the teams’ Week 6 meeting, Olsen torched the Seahawks secondary on several occasions, catching seven balls for 131 yards and adding a touchdown.
“When plays were there to have, Greg made plays, and he made my job a lot easier,” Newton told USA Today reporters. “I know there wasn’t a lot of accuracy in balls I was throwing to him, but he found ways to catch balls.”
This week’s contest will likely come down to Seattle’s ability to stop the run and make life uncomfortable for Cam. Newton had a 112.8 Quarterback Rating, 30 touchdowns and only four interceptions with a clean pocket, per Pro Football Focus. However, under duress, Newton’s passer rating dropped to 66.9, with only six touchdowns to six interceptions. In their Week 6 contest, the Seahawks got to Cam, sacking him three times and forcing him to throw two interceptions, but that was not enough to secure victory. Seattle will need to be more aggressive this week if they want a better result.
Like their first meeting, Sunday's game will likely stay close and be decided late. Carolina will be fueled by Cam’s magic, and they will need every dab (do you see what I did there?) they can get as they face a team that has played in these big moments before. Expect the magic to run out, and the improbable and almost-fated Seahawks to make their third straight trip to the NFC Championship game.