1. When under pressure, Cam Newton is a below-average passer. And the Seahawks have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL.
Carolina was a complete team this season, excelling on both sides of the ball. But one of its most notable areas of improvement was in the passing game.
Newton has been one of the most physically impressive QBs, and arguably the best running QB, since being drafted at No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft. But he made a huge leap forward this season as a passer. Just take a look at how his numbers compare this season versus last season:
|QB rating||99.2 (8th in NFL)||82.2 (22nd)|
|Deep accuracy||48.6 percent (4th)||31.5 (22nd)|
In other words, he’s gone from a below-average passer to one of the league’s best.
However, there is a catch: When the opposing team’s pass rush gets to him, he goes from one of the league’s best passers to a below-average one. Just take a look:
|QB rating from a clean pocket||112.8||98.2|
|QB rating when under pressure||66.9||71.5|
This hasn’t been much of an issue this season, in part because of how good Newton has been throwing the ball overall, and in part because of how effective he is as a scrambler and on designed runs – but most of all because the Panthers have been very good in pass protection.
That was the case in Carolina’s Week 6 win over the Seahawks, during which only one offensive line starter earned a negative pass-protection grade: right tackle Mike Remmers. But the Seahawks’ pass rush has been very disruptive as of late, with defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril both ranking in the top five of quarterback pressures at the position this season, and rookie Frank Clark emerging as an effective third option. And not only could they again find success coming off the edge against Remmers, but Carolina left tackle Michael Oher has earned poor pass-blocking grades in two of his last three games.
If the Seahawks can get consistent pressure against Newton, the Panthers could have a far tougher time moving the ball than they did in that Week 6 win.
2. The Panthers have just one elite pass-catcher in Greg Olsen. And the Seahawks’ pass coverage has improved a lot since the teams’ first meeting.
Carolina’s receiving corps has been beat up this season, to an unfair degree, but while the rest of the receivers have overachieved this season — in particular rookie Devin Funchess, who improved as the year went on, ranking 87th in PFF wide receiver grades through Week 8, and 34th in Weeks 9-17 — this is an average unit if the opposing defense can shut down Olsen, who earned PFF’s top marks as a receiving tight end this season.
The Seahawks certainly weren’t able to do that in the Week 6 loss, with Olsen catching seven passes for 131 yards, including the game-winning touchdown. But not only do they figure to be better prepared this time around, their pass coverage has gotten a lot better as the season has progressed.
In their first six games, Seattle earned a negative coverage grade in four of them, culminating in that Week 6 loss to Carolina. In its final 10 regular-season games, it earned a negative coverage grade just once.
Given the overall ability of this Seattle secondary, it wouldn’t be at all surprising for Olsen to have a much tougher time putting up big numbers in the rematch.
3. The Panthers’ pass coverage has looked more vulnerable recently. And Russell Wilson played a great game in the teams’ Week 6 matchup.
As good as the Seahawks’ pass coverage has been this season, Carolina’s has actually been better, ranking No. 1 in PFF grades. However, the Panthers have shown a few cracks in recent weeks in close wins over the Saints and Giants, and their one loss to Atlanta.
That’s not to say that Wilson and the Seahawks passing game will have it easy – or anything close to it – against the Panthers’ secondary. But Wilson has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season, and he put together a very good performance in that Week 6 loss, despite being under pressure on over half of his dropbacks.
He was able to effectively attack the Panthers downfield, completing 9 of 13 passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield for 208 of his 241 yards and one touchdown. Even more impressive is that the game came prior to the ascension of Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, a tandem that has been one of the NFL’s best wide receiver combos in the NFL the second half of the season.
When you also factor in that Marshawn Lynch, arguably the league’s best back when he’s healthy, could potentially return for this one, it’s a scary proposition for Carolina fans.
All of this isn’t to say Carolina doesn’t have a good chance to win, as the Panthers have been able to go 15-1 for a lot of reasons. They are the second-ranked team in our overall PFF grades, first on offense and seventh on defense. Newton has graded out slightly better than Wilson, ranking No. 5 in our grades, and there are studs at all three levels on defense in the form of defensive tackle Kawann Short, linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman. But it’s not a stretch to say that of the seven remaining playoff teams, the Seahawks represent the worst possible matchup for the Panthers. And it means a trip to the NFC title game will be well-earned.
Jeff Dooley is the Editor in Chief of Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.