The first game of the NFC Divisional playoffs is a matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday night.
CAROLINA PANTHERS at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (Saturday, FOX, 7:15 PM CST)
What lies ahead is only part of the problem for the Carolina Panthers. Where it lies is more of it.
During the past three seasons, the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have compiled a 24-2 record at CenturyLink Field. Combine that with the fact that the Seahawks are the only team in the NFL to allow less than 300 yards per game (33 yards less to be exact) and the Panthers' chances don't seem very high.
The Panthers, a team that entered the playoffs with a less than .500 record, defeated the Arizona Cardinals in last weeks Wild Card round, evening their win and loss totals (8-8-1). While the Arizona offense pails in comparison to what Seattle is capable of, the Panthers held the Cardinals to just 78 net yards, an extremely impressive feat no matter what team you're up against.
The Panthers, who were once an ugly 3-8-1, have rattled off five wins in a row to earn their spot in the Divisional round. During the win streak, they have allowed an average of 11.8 points per game and 238.2 yards per game, efforts they will need to continue in order to beat the Seahawks.
The Panthers run their offense through quarterback Cam Newton, who during the five-game streak (he played in just four of the games due to a car accident), has thrown seven touchdowns to just two interceptions. As someone who has a raw ability to pick up yards on the ground, he also had three touchdowns rushing during that span.
His counterpart in QB Russel Wilson has similar qualities, and he has been outstanding during his first three seasons in the league. From 2012-2014, Wilson has a 40-13 record as a starter along with 20 touchdowns to just seven interceptions in 2014. With 849 yards rushing on 118 attempts on the year, his 7.2 yards rushing per game was historical. Wilson now sits in sixth place in the single-season record books, joining the likes of Michael Vick (2004, 2006) and Randall Cunningham (1990) in the top ten seasons ever.
An impact player on Seattle's offense to watch in this game is of course running back Marshawn Lynch. 2014 marked the fourth year in a row Lynch exceeded 1,000 yards rushing on the ground, and he led all running backs in the league with an average of 2.96 yards after contact. Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly will have his hands full in containing the explosive running back.
Similar to the New England Patriots, the Seahawks seemingly turned their season around after a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. After losing to Kansas City, 24-20, in Week 11, Seattle won six games in a row to end their season on a spectacularly high note.
The Seahawks defeated the Panthers once already this year in a 13-9 win in Week 8.
DALLAS COWBOYS (13-4) at GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-4) (Sunday, FOX, 12:05 PM CST)
Sunday action for the Divisional round begins with a historical matchup at Lambeau Field—for the first time in NFL playoff history, a home team with an 8-0 record in the regular season, the Green Bay Packers, will face an away team with an 8-0 record on the road in the regular season, the Dallas Cowboys.
The last time the Cowboys and Packers played in Green Bay in the playoffs was the 1967 NFL Championship Game, most famously known as the "Ice Bowl." The Packers won the game 21-17 and went on to win Super Bowl II. With the current forecast scheduled for somewhere between five degrees and 20 degrees, conditions may be similar on Sunday.
The matchup to watch in this game is between quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo, who have mind-boggling numbers at home and on the road, respectively. At Lambeau Field this season, Rodgers was 161 for 240 for 2,334 yards, 25 interceptions and no interceptions. His passer rating was 133.2. With previous seasons included, Rodgers has thrown 477 consecutive pass attempts and 38 touchdown passes in a row without an interception. His postseason passer rating of 103.1 is good for second place in NFL history.
Away from Dallas in 2014, Romo was 161 for 228 for 1,933 yards, 20 touchdowns and two interceptions. Romo, while perfect on the road this season as previously mentioned, will need to snap the Cowboys' six-game road losing streak in the playoffs in order to advance.
Romo's favorite target this season was wide receiver Dez Bryant, who had an explosive year—1,320 yards receiving and a NFL-leading 16 touchdowns. Rodgers had two weapons with 1,000-plus yards receiving in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, who he found for a combined 25 of his 38 touchdowns.
Green Bay will feature former rookie of the year Eddie Lacy in the ground game and he will be up against Dallas' DeMarco Murray. Murray ran away from the rest of the league in yards rushing this season, totaling nearly 500 more yards than Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell in second place by the campaign's end. Last week, though he seemed to be not as effective as normal due to a broken hand, Murray still had 75 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown against the Detroit Lions.
With a victory against Green Bay this Sunday, Dallas would advance to its 15th NFC Championship Game, which would tie the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers for the most appearances in a Conference Championship Game since 1970.
Keep an eye this weekend on the status of Rodgers and watch him closely. Though he will almost definitely play, he has been hindered this practice week by what is being called a strained calf, and that could affect his performance against a Cowboys team on a roll.
|LAST WEEK'S RESULTS (JANUARY 3-4)|
|Saturday, January 3||Sunday, January 4|
|CAROLINA 27, Arizona 16||INDIANAPOLIS 26, Cincinnati 10|
|Baltimore 30, PITTSBURGH 17||DALLAS 24, Detroit 20|
|Home teams capitalized|
|2014 DIVISIONAL WEEKEND SCHEDULE (JANUARY 10-11)|
|Saturday, January 10||Sunday, January 11|
|Baltimore at New England 3:35 PM (NBC)||Dallas at Green Bay 12:05 PM (FOX)|
|Carolina at Seattle 7:15 PM (FOX)||Indianapolis at Denver 3:40 PM (CBS)|
|All times listed in Central Standard Time|