The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers have developed an unexpected rivalry since 2010, meeting for the ninth time on Sunday since Pete Carroll came back to the NFL. The Seahawks are 6-2 in those games, including 1-1 in the playoffs, and this week’s game has bigger playoff implications than any of the regular season meetings that came before it. If Seattle wins, they have an advantage in the wild card races. If the Panthers win, they’ll have a two-game lead and a tiebreaker over the Seahawks, almost assuring that it would take a mini-miracle for Seattle to overcome them in the next five games.
It’s that important, so to gauge how different this Carolina team is from the past iterations, I sent five Qs to Walker Clement of Cat Scratch Reader and in kind he sent me five corresponding As. This is 5 Qs, 5 As.
Q: What would you call the Panthers best win of the season, what’s been their worst loss, and what was the main difference for Carolina between those two games?
A: The best and worst games of the season bookended a three week run for the Panthers. They hosted the Ravens during Week 8 when Baltimore still boasted the number 1 defense in the NFL. Cam Newton and company burned them in about every direction you can think of, taking full advantage of an impressive collection of skill players with speed to spare. The Panthers defense forced three turnovers in one of their best efforts to seal a game that was never really in doubt. This was the game that marked Carolina’s arrival as a team that was destined for the playoffs. They followed it up with what they thought was an absolute thrashing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and all was well until Week 10 happened.
The Pittsburgh Steelers taught the Panthers what beat down actually looks like, to the tune of a 52-21 loss. The Panthers weakness at left tackle got exposed by aggressive and varied blitzes. This caused the whole line to ultimately fall apart and allow Cam to be sacked five(!) times. This time the defense didn’t force any turnovers to go along with their zero sacks. Instead the put on a clinic to teach America’s youth how not to tackle. Head down, arms at your side, dive at the ground in the vicinity of the ball carrier. That’s an NFL defense right there, per their uniforms.
The difference on offense is obvious. It took eight weeks for somebody to decide to test a left tackle the Panthers signed off a couch on Wednesday of Week 2 and who has played almost every snap since then. The defense is a little harder to figure out. Luke Kuechly, of all people, has forgotten how to tackle and the rest of the team is following suit. If the Seahawks have any players who usually rack up the yards after the catch then you should start them in Fantasy this week.
Q: Carolina is 5-0 at home with a turnover differential of +10, compared to 1-4 on the road and a differential of -5. Is there a geographical, environmental, or tangible homefield advantage for the Panthers (i.e., Seattle is said to have a stadium that “traps” crowd noise) or is there nothing much going on besides the regular assumptions about playing better at home?
A: Bank of America Stadium has a reputation for being very easy on opposing teams. The city of Charlotte is filled with transplants from other areas who brought their rooting interests with them. As such, there is only now starting to be an adult generation of homegrown Panthers fans. The stadium itself is often filled with fans of other teams who bought their seats from disinterested season ticket holders. We can throw the actual field out of the home field advantage conversation.
As for the Panthers record this season, the Panthers played their early opponents on the road closely. A divisional loss is never surprising, so that accounts for the Falcons game. The Washington game was flukey as all hell. Each of those losses was by one score. The other two losses were the shellacking by Pittsburgh and last week’s cirque du ennui with a not-great Lions team. I think it is less about location and more about this team falling apart at the wrong time of the season. The Panthers right now are probably just a bad team with a lot of really good players.
Q: By all accounts, it seems as though Carolina has taken a step back on defense. DVOA ranking is much lower, passing touchdowns allowed is up, sacks are down, yards per carry allowed is up, and then there’s the 52-point game against the Steelers. This despite the fact that a lot of the names on defense seem to be the same, other than the loss of defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. What’s been the biggest difference in last year’s defense and this year’s defense; what are the weaknesses?
A: Two major factors drive the Panthers defensive decline. I already mentioned Luke Kuechly forgetting how to tackle. That never helps. The second factor is the pass rush is apparently on strike. They haven’t made any public demands, but neither have they shown up for work this season. I can only assume that they are holding out for a guarantee of a reasonable retirement age. 32 year old Mario Addison must be looking at 38 year old Julius Peppers and wondering how it is possible that the Panthers haven’t made any effort to find younger talent at their positions.
Q: Over the last seven games, D.J. Moore has caught 28 of 35 targets for 420 yards and carried it six times for 112. Is Carolina’s first round rookie finally the number one target that the Panthers have been looking for to pair with Cam Newton since Steve Smith’s departure? What’s held back Devin Funchess and Curtis Samuel from breaking out, assuming you agree that they have not “broken out”?
A: Moore is absolutely going to be that guy. It is kind of eerie how similar his game is to Smith’s. Moore’s physical play style makes him seem bigger than he is when on the ground. He also has Smitty’s hitherto unique talent of breaking huge plays only to be tackled inside the ten yard line. Devin Funchess may technically be the Panthers number one wide receiver, but DJ Moore is already their best.
As for why Funchess and Samuel haven’t broken out, those are two different stories. Funchess has pretty much hit his ceiling. He is about as good a number two guy as you can ask for, but he isn’t going to carry a team. Samuel, on the other hand, is still a bit of an unknown. Injuries hampered his rookie season and opportunity has been the struggle this year. That said, Samuel, Moore, and Christian McCaffrey have very complementary skill sets. The Panthers are a blast to watch when the three of them are on the field at the same time.
Q: Have you heard of Michael Dickson?
A: Peripherally, yes. I have heard he is dropping big balls or something like that. I’m not sure where the labor laws even fall on signing somebody that young to an NFL contract, but it sure as hell sounds like a better summer job than I ever had in high school.