Two months ago, the Carolina Panthers were looking like their only “road to MetLife Stadium,” the venue for this year’s Super Bowl, would be through the couches and television screens of the individual players as the Panthers sat at 2-3 and off to yet another patented slow Ron Rivera start.
They haven’t lost since.
As it looks now, Seattle will be the top seed in the NFC playoffs with but a single loss smudging their record. Head-to-head victories over both the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers gives them the tiebreaker edge over both in the seedings, and the Saints and Panthers have yet to play their pair of division-rivalry games this year.
Therefore, the NFC South winner should be determined by the outcome of those two contests most likely, with the Saints having the edge if the teams split home-and-home games as the Saints have a single game lead on Carolina, but face a tougher remaining two games – other than the ones against each other – so it should come down to the wire.
Depending on how San Francisco finishes out the season and the Wild Card slots go, for the moment and the old “if the playoffs began today,” Carolina would be a #5 seed and the Niners a 6th seed.
Don’t forget the weird rules the NFL has when two teams from the same division make the playoffs. I’m not sure of all the nuances myself, but as it works out the bottom seed doesn’t always play the top seed and go from there – that is to say, it’s not always a “done deal.”
It’s quite possible, depending on how the division winners fall, that Carolina could be hitting the road to play their initial playoff game at CenturyLink field in Seattle in January.
This brings up another interesting point. I have a couple of friends who are ‘Hawks fans, and they say that they and THEIR Seahawks fan-friends agree on one thing:
They fear Carolina the most.
Lots of reasons are given, but the recurring ones are that Carolina played Seattle SO tough to kick off the season, losing to them 12-7 in Charlotte. They also know that their QB, second-year dynamo Russell Wilson, was throwing up prayers in that second half and that our defense is nearly impossible to sustain a good running attack against. Seattle fans also know about our pass rush and that we have as good a pair of ends in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson as any team in the NFL. They say our offense is “diverse enough” with our defense to keep any contest up there close, and that anyone can win in a given close ball game.
I’m sure the college game, the Iron Bowl outcome specifically, didn’t help them sleep any better as they are well aware of the “any given Sunday” mantra that is the NFL.
They also have to keep in mind the state of their own defense. While Seattle leads Carolina in total defense – 285 yds/game vs. 289 yds/game for Carolina – Carolina leads Seattle in the only defensive category that is meaningful, and that is in points allowed.
Carolina has an efficient red-zone offense and quarterback in Cam Newton. The Panthers also have a very stingy defense in the red zone, which is in large part why Carolina has the NFL’s best scoring defense.
It’s somewhat fitting that the Road to MetLife Stadium, the first cold-weather Super Bowl venue in decades, runs through another cold-weather venue in Seattle.
Carolina and pretty much any other team would be at a disadvantage playing outside in cold weather as, of course, Charlotte is hardly a “cold-weather” city…but at least it’s open-air, unlike New Orleans and their 72-degree confines inside at the Louisiana Superdome.
In one sense, a Seattle/Denver match-up would really fit nicely into the cold weather venue as both teams would be from cold weather outdoor stadiums. In many ways, I think Seattle really sees their opportunity this year, as they look to keep home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs and continue to win games.
Wilson is also a product, somewhat, of a cold-weather college program. While he lost his job as the starting QB at N.C. State to now-Tampa Bay QB Mike Glennon, he transferred to Wisconsin to play his final season of college football, so at least he’s acclimated to playing in the cold for the past several years.
Cam Newton? He went to Auburn, plays in Charlotte, and so far hasn’t been tested in a cold weather game. If the Panthers are going to maximize their chances of a victory at Seattle in December, they’ll have to make sure their defense is playing at peak efficiency, get Charles Johnson healthy, and keep their red zone defense tough.
Offensively, Cam would likely have to do some running of his own and especially on third downs whether it’s designed that way or he just sees open space and scrambles, the Seahawks have “The Legion of Boom” secondary and certainly bigger-name players than those of the Carolina Panthers’ back-four.
Cornerback Richard Sherman seems to be taking over the mantle from Darrelle Revis as the NFL’s best cover man, but they’ve been showing some cracks in their armor of late…especially against the run.
Carolina would have to take advantage of anything they can if they want to advance past Seattle IN Seattle. The team certainly matches up as well against the Seahawks as any NFC team does, so I can see why Seahawks fans fear the Panthers the most of anyone – including San Francisco.
Nothing is set in stone yet, however, and projections and all the permutations being looked at are exactly why they play the games. Things on paper don’t always translate onto the gridiron, and as things stand right now, the road to MetLife Stadium travels right through Seattle.
Unless the ‘Hawks suddenly forget how to win ball games in bunches, it appears more and more that’s the town the other NFC hopefuls have to travel through to get to MetLife Stadium in February.
The Carolina Panthers are as good a bet as any visiting team to escape from Seattle with their metaphorical lives…and a real NFL playoff victory.
Such appears to be the road to the Super Bowl 2013 style.
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In the spirit of full-disclosure, MetLife as part of the Road to MetLife Stadium Preferred Blogger Program has provided me access to MetLife Stadium-related events and reader giveaways prizes. However, no payment was given or expected for posting about the program, and as always, all opinions given here are fully my own.