Believing they’re better now for having navigated an early Super Bowl hangover, the Seattle Seahawks hope to take a step toward becoming the first repeat champions in 10 years.
With their defense seemingly back in title form, the Seahawks look to extend the NFL’s longest winning streak to seven games by stopping the Carolina Panthers‘ surprising run Saturday night in the NFC divisional round.
Seattle has come a long way since splitting its first six games while the defense looked nothing like the unit that dominated high-scoring Denver in a 43-8 victory in Super Bowl XLVII.
Through the first seven weeks, the Seahawks ranked 19th in defensive scoring at 23.5 while allowing 324.5 yards per game. At that point, they didn’t appear capable of becoming the first team since New England in 2005 to repeat.
”It’s been difficult for people, and the history of it shows you that it’s hard to come back and get yourself back into this kind of position again,” coach Pete Carroll said.
Carroll’s squad has done that by getting back to its ball-hawking ways. The Seahawks allowed three touchdowns, 39 points and kept five of six opponents to seven points or less while winning their last six games to finish 12-4.
They did not allow a point in the fourth quarter during that stretch, surrendering 66.0 yards rushing and 136.2 yards passing per game to finish with the league’s top-ranked defense for the second straight season.
The Seahawks will have to continue that effort in the playoffs without defensive tackle Jordan Hill (calf), who had been a force inside with 5 1/2 sacks over the final six games.
“We figured it out; it just took us a long time,” Carroll said. ”It just took us longer than we would like, but the thing that happened this year just happened in different order than it did last year.”
Seattle, which has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, seeks its eighth straight postseason home win and fifth consecutive victory overall in the past five seasons against Carolina (8-8-1).
The Panthers have only managed one offensive touchdown in the past three meetings after Cam Newton went 12 of 22 for 171 yards with an interception and a lost fumble in a 13-9 home loss Oct. 26.
Since throwing an interception in eight consecutive starts, Newton has seven touchdowns and two picks in his last four. He tossed two TDs in last Saturday’s 27-16 home win over Arizona in the wild-card round, but also had an interception that led to a touchdown and coughed up a fumble.
”We have to play better than we have,” said coach Ron Rivera, whose home sustained significant damage from a fire two days after the win. ”We just have to be smarter than some of the things we did out there. We have to protect the football.”
Carolina became the first team to go more than two months without a win and reach the playoffs with four straight victories – including one without Newton after he was injured in a car accident Dec. 9.
The Panthers also have turned things around on the defensive end, allowing 11.8 points and 238.2 yards per game in their last five. Led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, they gave up 78 yards last weekend – the fewest ever allowed in the playoffs
Defensive end Star Lotulelei has been critical to the improved play down the stretch, but he won’t be available after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot.
”It isn’t the prettiest thing, but we got a date to the prom at the end of the day,” safety Roman Harper said. ”We’re here. She’s probably not the best-looking one; she’s not going to win prom queen, but we’ll have a good time.”
The Panthers will look to contain Seattle playmakers Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch as they try to advance to the NFC championship game for the first time since a 34-14 loss to the Seahawks in 2005.
Wilson has thrown for nine touchdowns with two interceptions over his last seven games and led the league with 53.1 rushing yards per game among quarterbacks. Newton ranked third at 38.5.
Wilson, though, has totaled 54 rushing yards while completing 71.1 percent of his passes with three scores and three picks in three meetings with Carolina. He found tight end Luke Willson for the winning 23-yard scoring play with 47 seconds remaining in October.
Lynch has a league high-tying eight rushing touchdowns and ranks fourth with 94.6 rushing yards per game since Week 10. However, he hasn’t run for more than 85 yards in five games against the Panthers, going without a TD in the past three.
Seattle will get a lift with the return of center Max Unger following a six-game absence due to knee and ankle injuries.