By Cedric Williams
Thanks to the Seattle Seahawks’ stunning loss in Tampa Bay on Sunday, the NFC playoff race is tightening.
On the one hand, the Seahawks are fine. Despite the loss, they didn’t lose any ground to anybody in the NFC West because all the other teams in the NFC West lost on Sunday, too.
But in the overall NFC playoff hunt, Seattle’s loss leaves the club just a half game ahead of the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions and NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons for the No. 2 seed in the conference standings.
Holding that No. 2 seed is significant because not only does it come with at least one home game in the playoffs, it also includes a bye during Wild Card weekend, which means one less game to play to try to reach Super Bowl LI.
So for those who hadn’t noticed already, the NFC playoff hunt is on. And that’s going to make all five remaining regular season games important ones for the Seahawks, beginning with this weekend’s Sunday Night Football showdown at CenturyLink Field against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.
Carolina Panthers Season Record: 4-7, last place in the NFC South
2016 has been just a dismal year for the Panthers. It began nice enough, with Carolina winning two exciting playoff games to reach Super Bowl 50.
But ever since that disheartening loss to the Denver Broncos back in February, just about everything has gone wrong for the Panthers.
Carolina began this season by winning just one of its first six games. Then, the club won two straight in rather impressive fashion, which led some to believe the Panthers had found their groove again. But since then, Carolina has lost two of its last three and now the Panthers are again in last place in a division that features nothing but teams that struggle to show any consistency.
Carolina Panthers on Offense:
One reason why the Panthers have struggled so mightily this season is how far they’ve fallen in production from their offense. Last year, Carolina was the highest scoring team in the league, with an offense that stood near the top of the league rankings in every category.
This year, the Panthers are just 10th in scoring (25.1 points per game), while ranking 14th overall in total offense (352.8 yards per game).
Quarterback and reigning league MVP Cam Newton is one player whose seen his numbers drop. This year, Newton has passed for just 2,432 yards and 13 touchdowns, while also tossing eight interceptions.
Carolina Panthers on Defense:
Last year, the Panthers were also one of the best teams in the league on defense too. But this year, Carolina is near the middle of the pack or at the bottom of the pack in most categories, including total defense (16th overall), pass yards allowed (29th overall), and points allowed (24th overall).
The one thing the Panthers have been able to maintain is their stout defense against the run. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis lead a group that ranks second in the league in fewest rush yards allowed.
Carolina Panthers Players to Watch:
Besides Newton, the two players who seem to play the biggest roles in making the Panthers go on offense are tight end Greg Olsen and receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Olsen leads Carolina in receptions (58) and receiving yards (790) with three touchdowns, while Benjamin is right behind in catches (48) and yards (736) with a team-leading five touchdown receptions.
The player to watch, or possibly not watch, on the Panther defense is the linebacker Kuechly. He is the heart and soul of Carolina’s defensive unit, but last week he didn’t play due to a head injury suffered 10 days earlier in a game against New Orleans.
If Kuechly is able to play Sunday in Seattle, that would figure to be a huge lift for the Panthers. But if he isn’t, expect the Seahawks to try to exploit his absence just as Oakland did last week to tune of 35 points and a victory.
Last season, Carolina seemed to be living proof that sometimes it’s just your year. And the Panthers rode that wave all the way to the franchise’s second trip to the Super Bowl.
This season, it seems that Carolina is finding out it can not be your year just as easily, and that might just continue on Sunday.