SEAHAWKS AT PANTHERS JAN. 17, 1:05 P.M. ET
THE CASE FOR
DESPITE THE 15--1 RECORD, every postseason opponent, especially the Seahawks, will think Carolina is ripe for the upset. Outside of MVP front-runner Cam Newton, cornerback Josh Norman, tight end Greg Olsen and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers don't wow with their roster depth or talent; they just execute simplified schemes very well and stay in their opponents' faces all game long. Further pumping up Carolina's paper tiger reputation, it feasted on the NFL's easiest schedule. Now let's be clear: All of these skeptics are mistaken. The Panthers have a perfect offensive-defensive symbiosis. It was one thing for Seattle to limit Adrian Peterson on Sunday in sub-zero weather and without much of a passing game to worry about. It would be quite another for the Seahawks to stymie the league's top-scoring O, with its multiple rushing attack that ranges from traditional two-back sets to read-option power runs designed for Newton. And because the Panthers run so well (2,282 yards, No. 2 in the NFL), there are one-on-one coverages for the QB to exploit when he needs a play, especially to the technically flawless Olsen. Altogether, that's a head-spinning task for any D to prepare for. Defensively, Carolina's line sometimes lacks in the pass rush but should be able to contain Seahawks QB Russell Wilson in the next round; and the league's two best run-and-hit backers, Kuechly and Davis, will work the seams against Seattle's receivers. The Panthers may not be sexy, but they're going to be a tough out for anyone.
SUPER BOWL MVP ...
Cam Newton. Carolina scored an NFL-high 31.3 ppg because Newton, in year five, is in total control of his game. And this man loves the big stage.
SURE, IT'S IMPRESSIVE that Seattle is already this close to being the first team in the salary-cap era to reach three straight Super Bowls. But this postseason represents, easily, the biggest mountain to climb for a team that needed a missed 27-yard field goal by the Vikings on Sunday to survive. Yes, quarterback Russell Wilson played outstanding football down the stretch this season once he returned to his roots and started operating the passing game in rhythm and from the pocket. Yes, Seattle's defense still makes life hell for opponents. But this is far from a Super Bowl--bound juggernaut. The Vikings showed, like the Rams in Week 16 and the Cardinals in Week 10 (nothing was at stake in Week 17), that a stout defense can keep the Seahawks in check by smothering their limited targets and pressuring Wilson behind an average O-line. The defense, with or without safety Kam Chancellor, has been vulnerable since last year's Super Bowl collapse because the secondary, outside of free safety Earl Thomas, hasn't been remotely close to its form of 2013. All of that said, this team is not going quietly into the night. If Seattle keeps the shackles off Wilson, spreads the field and lets him operate a throw-first offense with some read-option sprinkled between doses of Marshawn Lynch (if he returns from abdominal surgery), then this team can realistically approach the offensive efficiency of the Panthers and, perhaps after that, the Cardinals. While the defense is getting a tad long in the tooth, many of its stars are core playmakers who know how to win in the postseason, ugly or otherwise. They live for this time of year, and that goes a long way.
SUPER BOWL MVP ...
Cliff Avril. If Seattle wins its second title in three seasons, it will be with D. Giving the trophy to Avril, who dominated the Vikings, would right a wrong from SB XLVIII, when his deserved MVP trophy went to Malcolm Smith.
TROY WAYRYNEN/USA TODAY SPORTS (KUECHLY)
TOM LYNN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WILSON)
BRACE HEMMELGARN/USA TODAY SPORTS (AVRIL)
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