8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Seahawks -7, Over/Under: 44
A matchup that coming into the season no doubt suggested a clash of titans instead implies something much different, as the Seattle Seahawks host the struggling Carolina Panthers in a meeting between teams traveling in very opposite directions. It would be difficult to imagine a more disappointing team in 2016 than the Panthers (4-7, 4th in NFC South), who after going a franchise-best 15-1 last year en route to representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLX, now find themselves, well, a shell of themselves languishing in last place. Granted, they are 3-2 since a dreadful 1-5 start to the campaign, but this team has provided very little to suggest that they’re capable of turning things around and sneaking into a fourth consecutive trip to the Postseason. So what’s happened to the three-time NFC South Champions, you ask? Well, where do we start? First and foremost, the Offense, led by reigning MVP Cam Newton, just isn’t the same, and for that matter Newton isn’t either. The hulking Quarterback accounted for a staggering forty-five touchdowns in 2015, but has seen a steep statistical decline across the board, particularly in significant categories such as Completion Percentage (55.8%), Net Yards per Attempt (6.08), Sack Percentage (7.4%), Interception Percentage (2.4%), and Quarterback Rating (56.00). Much has been made of the cumulative effect of the needlessly avoidable punishment he exposes himself to on a weekly basis, but by far the biggest reason for his struggles is the mass disintegration of his Supporting Cast. The Offensive Line, which wasn’t one of their strongest position groups last year, has been in shambles with four of their number occupying Injured Reserve, including notables such as Starting Center Ryan Kalil (Shoulder) and Left Tackle Michael Oher (Concussion). Sacked twenty-seven times while being hit and pressured on countless others, Newton has rarely been afforded the luxury of a clean pocket within which to operate, while the rushing attack hasn’t been nearly as imposing at it’s been in the past. Despite attempting 27.8 rushes per game (8th Overall), Carolina hasn’t done much with it, averaging 109.5 yards on the ground (13th Overall) on a disappointing 3.9 yards per carry (22nd Overall), with Tailback Jonathan Stewart (461 yards, 7 TD) once again dealing with the chronic injuries that have plagued him throughout his career. Hell, if you took away Newton’s 27.4 rushing yards, the Backfield would only be accounting for 82.1 yards per game, putting them among the league’s least productive units. The bottom line on this side of the ball is that the Panthers have consistently looked out of synch, while turning the football over at an alarming frequency; only three teams have turned the ball over more than these guys (21), placing their Turnover Differential at a very unfavorable Minus-5. That’s a huge turnaround from a campaign in which they were a whopping Plus-20, best in the NFL. Then there’s the Defense, which has probably taken the biggest nosedive; Ron Rivera’s favored group has relinquished 25.5 points (24th Overall) on 354.7 Total Yards (17th Overall), including a ridiculously dismal 275.2 yards through the air (29th Overall) on 6.7 Net Yards per Attempt (24th Overall). We get it, All-Pro Cornerback Josh Norman is gone, but that just doesn’t excuse the poor play of this Secondary consisting of Rookies and Journeymen. Teams know they can throw against these guys, tossing twenty-one touchdowns (26th Overall), and now it looks like they’re going to get more bad news in the form of Luke Kuechley’s continued (102 TKL, 1 INT, 6 PD, 1 FF, 2.0 SK) absence. The three-time Pro Bowl Middle Linebacker suffered a nasty concussion two weeks ago against the Saints, and has yet to receive the green light from Carolina’s medical team, meaning that this unit will once again be without their Captain, who just so happens to be one of the best Coverage Linebackers in the league. Unfortunately, he’s far from the only defender on the mend, as Starting Defensive End Mario Addison (Foot) and Safety Kurt Coleman (Concussion) have both been pronounced out with various ailments, while Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Kawann Short’s (36 TKL, 3.0 SK) availability is in doubt with a lingering back injury suffered weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks (7-3-1, 1st in NFC West) have dealt with their fair share of bumps in the road, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, but have nonetheless proved to be remarkably resilient, positioning themselves atop a surprisingly underwhelming NFC West. In a conference where just about everyone has glaring weaknesses (cough, Pass-Protection, cough), it’s been very difficult to discount Seattle, which checks a number of boxes when it comes to evaluating a championship contender. First and foremost, they have that rare commodity at the game’s most important position, where Russell Wilson has heroically held the Offense together despite playing the lion’s share of the year with a number of nagging injuries. Sprains to his Ankle, MCL, and Pectoral Muscle haven’t been able to down the 28-year old, who has efficiently managed the game completing 64.7% of his attempts for 2,865 yards (6.75 NY/A), eleven touchdowns and just four interceptions, all the while flaunting his skills in the clutch, leading his team to four Fourth Quarter Comebacks. Making his resilience all the more impressive is the fact that the injuries have all but robbed him of his mobility, which has been such an integral part of his game throughout his career. Of course, the Offensive Line hasn’t helped matters; a weak group for years, the big fellas in the trenches have sank to new depths in 2016, featuring a group consisting of young prospects and Undrafted Free Agents. In fact, Pete Carroll’s charges are the only team in the NFL to start not one, but TWO undrafted Tackles on their Offensive Line. Bold? Absolutely. Ideal? Hardly. The problem is that when these guys are at their best, they’re barely an average unit, but when they’re bad it’s been damn near cataclysmic. As a result, the rushing attack, which has long been a constant in the Pacific Northwest has rarely been heard from this season, averaging just 88.9 yards per game (27th Overall) on a miserable 3.7 yards per carry (26th Overall), while the Backfield has been a revolving door with Thomas Rawls (120 yards, 0 TD) missing the first seven games of the term, Christine Michael (469 yards, 6 TD) getting released for the second time in as many years, and Dual-Threat Rookie C.J. Prosise (380 All-Purpose Yards, 1 TD) suffering an unfortunate shoulder injury that will sideline him until at least the Playoffs. But hey, back to checking those boxes… When you have a Defense like Carroll does, you can cover up A LOT of warts. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a group put together a five-year run like the one these guys are on, as Seattle has relegated opponents to a league-low 17.0 points (1st Overall) on 335.7 Total Yards (7th Overall), including 235.5 yards versus the pass (10th Overall) on 6.1 Net Yards per Attempt (8th Overall), and another 100.2 yards versus the run (14th Overall) on 3.5 yards per carry (3rd Overall). In fact, if they’re able to finish the season atop the league in Points Allowed for a fourth consecutive season, they will become the first team in NFL History to do so. Furthermore, they’ve forced fourteen turnovers (14th Overall) and amassed thirty-one sacks (T-3rd Overall), all the while defending the sixth-most plays this season (806) due to the fact that their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball struggle to sustain drives. And unlike their opponent tonight, the famed Legion of Boom is about as unforgiving as they come when it comes to keeping opponents out of the End Zone, permitting just ten passing touchdowns thus far, second-fewest in the NFL. After missing last week’s contest, Pro-Bowl Safety Earl Thomas (44 TKL, 2 INT, 9 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD) will return to the field after practicing all week, joining Richard Sherman (46 TKL, 4 INT, 9 PD, 1 FR) and Kam Chancellor (49 TKL, 2 INT, 6 PD, 1 FF) as charter members of the league’s most celebrated Secondary. And that of course, brings us to the fact that what sets this team apart from their competition in the NFC is their Postseason Pedigree; Seattle has been to the Playoffs four consecutive years, including a pair of trips to the Super Bowl in 2013 and 2014, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy three years ago. This team knows what it takes to get there and has the requisite experience to get the job done, making them by far and away the most dangerous contender on this particular side of the bracket.
Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 20, Panthers 17