Carolina Panthers v Seattle Seahawks
Live on Sky Sports
I want to pick Carolina to win this. I really do. They've been so, so impressive this season. And yet I can't. Because all logic and all performance-related data tells me that the Seahawks will probably win this, or at the very least it will be desperately close.
There are certainly lots of reasons to like Carolina. They breezed through the regular season with a 15-1 record. On offense, quarterback Cam Newton had his best NFL season to date, throwing more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than ever before. And the Panthers defense has been lauded throughout the campaign, with All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman in particular getting phenomenal amounts of ink in the media.
But if you look carefully at what's powering this bandwagon, you'll find its engine is two parts Ferrari, one part hot-air. Because the performances simply don't match the hype.
For starters, the Panthers' passing offense isn't all that. In fact it ranks just 24th in the league, four places behind the Seahawks. Be honest, which Carolina receiver would you want catching a ball if your life depended on it? It's a short list. Very, very short. In fact let's be honest, it's just tight end Greg Olsen.
Carolina's running game looks to be it's main weapon, ranking second in the NFL. But I'm sorry, I'm still not convinced that Jonathan Stewart is a premier rusher. He carried the Panthers' ground attack all season and still didn't manage a thousand yards. Plus his total of six touchdowns also smacks of mediocrity.
Bear in mind too that Seattle rank right behind Carolina at rushing, with the third placed Seahawks actually averaging more yards per carry and committing fewer fumbles than the Panthers. It would be a boost for the Hawks if Marshawn Lynch is passed fit. For sure. But the performances in his absence, of first Thomas Rawls and more recently Christine Michael, have shown that almost anyone can run the ball from behind this highly impressive Seattle offensive line.
So Seattle have the advantage on offense. But what about on defense you cry?!? Well, quite simply it's Seattle again. The Hawks boast the best run-defense in the NFL, three places better than Sunday's opponents. And they have the league's second best pass-defense, ranking nine better than Carolina.
So just why are Carolina the NFC's top seeds? Well, like with Washington last week, the Panthers have had it pretty easy this season. Their opponents' win-loss records added up to -30, which means they beat a lot of poor teams. By contrast, Seattle's opponents were a cumulative +11. This doesn't make the Panthers bad. But it does mean they've been over-hyped. And that in turn makes the Seahawks great value.
And for all the attention that 'Superman' Cam Newton's been getting, I'd argue that Seattle's Russell Wilson has had the better year. Wilson's thrown one less touchdown than Cam but has tossed two fewer picks. And Wilson's passer rating, the official measure of overall effectiveness, crushed that of Newton this season by 110 to 99.
In his defense, Cam has rushed for 10 touchdowns to Wilson's one. But it's the Seahawk who actually averages more yards per scamper. Newton is definitely the more instinctive poacher. But he may find hogging the limelight more difficult against the league's number one run-stoppers - a unit who've conceded only 10 running TDs all season.
As to where the Hawks could win it? Well Carolina's secondary, whatever Josh Norman might say, looks like its Achilles heel. And in Jimmy Graham's absence, the diminutive Doug Baldwin has emerged as the man for the big occasion. I'd happily back him to get a hundred-plus yards and add to his 14 touchdowns to date. Baldwin made a stunning one-handed catch in last week's squeaky-bum win over Minnesota and he could again play a deciding role.
When these sides met in Week Six, Seattle were cruising to victory - until a late meltdown saw the Panthers snatch it 27-23, with Greg Olsen catching the winning score 32 seconds from time. The Seahawks should have won though. And they've only gotten steadily better in the three months since.
The handicap of just two points between the teams should set alarm bells ringing. And for all the reasons I've just explained. So you have been warned. There's an iceberg coming! And while Carolina's season has so far been titanic, now is the time to jump ship.
3pts Seattle (+2.5) to beat Carolina @ 1.9720/21
2pts Seattle to win at halftime @ 2.206/5
Seattle to win by 1-6 points @ 5.04/1
2pts Doug Baldwin passing yards to be Over 60.5 @ 10/11 (Sportsbook)
Doug Baldwin to score 1st/anytime touchdown @ 9.28/1
2pts Russell Wilson to have more rushing yards than Cam Newton @ 10/11 (Sportsbook)