• SEAHAWKS VS. PANTHERS / SATURDAY 8:15 P.M. EST
THE PANTHERS' current five-game winning streak is built on a formula that has sparked many successful late- and postseason runs: defense and rushing. Since Week 14 the Panthers have allowed just 11.8 points per game and averaged a whopping 197 yards on the ground.
Predictably, the defensive surge has been sparked by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the league's rangiest pair of linebackers. A four-man pass rush that was dormant for much of the season has also blossomed: Carolina sacked Matt Ryan six times in an NFC South--deciding Week 17 win over the Falcons and Ryan Lindley four times in a wild-card win over the Cardinals.
No depleted opponents remain in these playoffs, though. For the 7-8-1 Panthers to pull off one of history's biggest upsets, against Seattle, they'll have to dictate the action through their ground game.
Credit offensive coordinator Mike Shula for constructing an attack that plays perfectly to its resources, starting with Cam Newton, whose mobility props up Carolina's staple read-option plays. The fourth-year quarterback has an excellent feel for reading the unblocked defender and riding the mesh point. When that defender crashes inside, Newton has the size and power to withstand the punishment that comes with keeping the ball. True, Newton has had injury problems at times this season, including a December car accident that fractured his back. But he has still managed 6.2 yards per run (granted, some were scrambles) during the winning streak, and he's gotten smarter about protecting himself.
The real concern with Newton is his erratic—at times downright unrefined—throwing mechanics, which negate his sensational arm strength and occasionally lead to senseless incompletions. That's all the more reason for Shula to stay on the ground, which means that Jonathan Stewart is almost as critical to Carolina's offense as Newton does. The seventh-year running back took over for an injured DeAngelo Williams (now healthy) at the start of the winning streak and has since averaged 104.8 rushing yards. At 235 pounds, Stewart can shed tacklers in Carolina's man-blocking power attack, plus he has surprising lateral agility to make defenders miss.
It has certainly helped that rookie guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner improved markedly over the course of the season, Norwell in his movement and Turner in his technique. It also helps that Shula has installed more triple-option elements, with either fullback Mike Tolbert or a motioning wide receiver giving defenses a third potential ballcarrier to worry about. Often a motioning Panthers receiver will run a fake (or "ghost") reverse—a misdirection element that gets linebackers and defensive backs flowing in the wrong direction. Factor this with the unblocked defensive end that Newton reads and you have the makings of an offense built not so much on execution but on deception.
This is how a sub-.500 club overcomes limited personnel and finds itself still competing in January.
CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (STEWART)
JIM DEDMON/ICON SPORTSWIRE
Combined first-quarter score in favor of Carolina over the Panthers' last five games.
When these teams met in Week 8, it was one of the few games this season in which the Panthers' pass D was truly formidable. (It helped that Carolina was facing an offense that, due in part to the opposing QB's 5'11" height, did not have a potent dropback passing game.) The Panthers can expect to succeed on the perimeter again on Saturday, only now, instead of Antoine Cason (who was cut last month) opposite Josh Norman at cornerback, it's Bené Benwikere, a fifth-round pick out of San Jose State who was solid in the slot early in the season and has proved capable as a zone defender since moving outside. Another change: Gone at free safety is Thomas DeCoud (benched), replaced by Tre Boston, another rookie (fourth round from North Carolina), who brings more athleticism to the table. Look for the Seahawks to challenge this secondary with plenty of spread formations.