Monday, 18th of January, 05:05am AEDST, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, Carolina, watch live on ESPN
IT’s a clash of the NFC heavyweights on Sunday afternoon in Carolina.
The Panthers host the Seattle Seahawks in a cutthroat playoff match to determine who will go through to the NFC Championship game and a shot at Super Bowl 50.
These two sides have met once this season – a last-minute come-from-behind win to the Panthers over the Seahawks in Seattle, a victory that head coach Ron Rivera hailed as “one of the bigger victories we’ve had since I’ve been here”.
The 15-1 Panthers earned a rest last week after finishing the season with the best record in the NFL.
Head coach Ron Rivera believes the week off will aid his team greatly heading into Sunday’s divisional match up.
“Probably the biggest thing obviously is getting a chance to rest some guys, getting some guys healthier,” Rivera said.
“That’s always the benefit.”
The man who needed the week off the most is running back Jonathan Stewart.
Stewart is the Panthers’ leading rusher this year with 949 yards this season, but the veteran has missed the last three games with a foot injury.
Rivera believes he will be fit to take the field come Sunday.
“He’s doing well,” Rivera said.
“He had a good day of practice today. Ran really hard, ran well with the football, so feel pretty comfortable with him back out there.”
The Seahawks prevailed 10-9 last week against Minnesota in the wild card match up.
Viking kicker Blair Walsh had a chance to put his team ahead in the dying stages of the game but failed to convert the opportunity, allowing the Seahawks to progress past his team and on to Carolina.
After missing last week’s tight victory with the abdomen injury, Seahawk running back Marshawn Lynch fully participated in training and is expected to line up against the Panthers.
Seahawks’ Offensive coordinator Darren Bevell belives Lynch has ticked all the fitness boxes in order to assume his position in the Seattle backfield.
“He looks good,” Bevell said.
“I can’t judge each and every day, but probably one of the best days that he had out here today. He’s in there, he’s moving around, he’s making more cuts, probably a little bit more tempo to it as well, so we’ll just continue to go day to day with it.”
If Lynch is available on Sunday the Seahawks will have arguably the best offensive weapon.
The two teams met in the same round of the playoffs last season, in that encounter the Seahawks were able to brush the Panthers aside on their way to a second consecutive NFC Championship berth.
If the Seahawks are to defeat the Panthers they will have to overcome a horrible away playoff record which has seen them win just three of their last 12 playoff road games.
Odds provided by Sportsbet.com.au
Winner: Carolina Panthers – $1.74
The side the Seahawks face on Sunday is a different beast to the one they defeated last season.
The Panthers lost just one game in the regular season and possess two great qualities: a strong defence and the soon to be crowned MVP, quarterback Cam Newton.
The former number one draft pick Newton broke all kinds of records throughout the regular season, elevating his game to the next level.
If the Seahawks are to progress through to the NFC Championship game, they must not allow Newton to get his running game going, one of his defining qualities.
The Seahawks look set to welcome back ‘Beast Mode’ Marshawn Lynch after missing last week’s wild card match with an abdomen injury.
Seattle’s running game is pivotal to their success, and after backup running back Thomas Rawls was ruled out for the rest of the campaign late in the regular season, Lynch’s fitness has been the main point of concern for the Seahawks going forward.
If Beast Mode can activate on Sunday, there is no question the Seahawks can make a big impact in this playoff series.
Despite making the past two Superbowls, Seattle will go into Sunday’s match up as heavy underdogs, but that does not mean the Panthers are a walk up start to the NFC Championship match.
The match will be an arm wrestle for large stretches of the game, but the Panthers look to have too many attacking options, the best quarterback and one of the best defences still in the playoffs.
Expect Carolina to defeat their NFC rivals and book their place in the Championship match.