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4 keys to Seahawks vs. Panthers playoff game

The Seattle Seahawks (11-6) escaped their playoff opener last weekend in the most unexpected of fashions, benefiting from Minnesota Vikings placekicker Blair Walsh missing a chip shot 27-yard field goal with inside of 30 seconds left in the game.

Next up is a trip to Carolina to take on the Panthers (15-1) in a rematch of a Week 6 game won by the Panthers in Seattle, 27-23.

Below are for keys to Sunday’s divisional playoff game:

Will the Seahawks be able to run the ball?

Against the Vikings, the Seahawks had two possession in the final four minutes, needing only a first down or two to ice the game. Both times, they came up woefully empty. When third and one turns into a passing down, your offense is in trouble, particularly in playoff games on the road.

Granted, the temperature was less than zero, and therefore less than ideal, and the Vikings have s stout defense. But, while temperatures will be more temperate in Charlotte, it will be important to note that the Luke Kuechly-led Panther defense finished 4th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing just 88.4 yards per game.

It’s still uncertain if the Seahawks will have Marshawn Lynch available for the game. But, even if he suits up, he’ll be hard pressed to be effective after having missed more than two months of action – it will be like the first preseason game for him.

To run the ball effectively against the Panthers, the Seahawks will need a strong performance from its offensive line. It won’t be about getting a 100-yard rusher. Rather, the Seahawks will be looking to be ahead of the down and distance, looking for convertible third and shorts rather than dangerous third and longs.

Will Panthers tight end Greg Olsen run wild?

Did you think the Seahawks were lucky to escape with the win against the Vikings? If so, consider the curious case of safety Kam Chancellor. Chancellor ended the game as one of its heroes for forcing a fumble by Adrian Peterson. However, if the Seahawks had lost the game, Chancellor surely would have been the goat, on the last drive having been called for a pass interference penalty on tight end Kyle Rudolph and then burned the next play by Rudolph for a long gain deep into Seahawks’ territory.

The Seahawks have been victimized by tight ends all season long, and the entire second and third levels of the defense have been culpable – linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties have all missed assignments in critical situations.

In the Week 6 matchup, Olsen hauled in a 26-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton with 32 seconds left to seal the Panthers’ victory. It capped the second 80-yard drive of the Panthers in the final quarter, a stanza that saw Newton go 12-15 for 169 yards. His favorite receiver in the game: Olsen, with 7 catches for 131 total yards and the winning touchdown.

Chancellor has had success in the past against Newton and the Panthers – who can forget his dominant performance in last year’s playoff game against the Panthers, including a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown and a field goal pressure for the ages?

Sunday, who will win the individual matchup, Olsen or Chancellor?

Who settles for field goals instead of touchdowns?

In what should be a tight ball game, it’s going to be important for both teams to take full advantage of every opportunity it gets. The team that settles for field goals when the other team is scoring touchdowns is the team that will be starting its winter vacation early.

The Panthers lead the NFL this year in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns 69.39 percent of time when inside opponents’ 20-yard line. The Seahawks, on the other hand, were 16th in the 32-team NFL, scoring touchdowns just 56 percent of their trips inside the 20.

Which team is going to be “that team?”

Neither team wants to be the team that turns the ball over on Sunday. In football, particularly the playoffs, the team that loses the turnover battle usually loses the game.

The Panthers won 15 of 16 games this year primarily by winning the turnover battles – they led the NFL with a plus-20 turnover differential, forcing 39 takeaways while turning the ball over just 19 times themselves. The Seahawks were 7th in the NFL with a plus-7 differential, hampered in part by forcing just 23 turnovers.

Turnovers change field position in an instant, and sometimes lead to a direct score. They’re cause for huge momentum shifts, and if the home team gets rolling with its boisterous crowd, they’ll be next to impossible to stop – something the Seahawks know all too well when playing at home.

Carolina won on the road in Week 6. Will Seattle be able to return the favor when it counts most? The four keys above should tell you well before this week’s game gets into the final minute.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brevard/USA Today Sports

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Ray Hartjen

A Public Relations pro by day, by night @RayHartjen follows parallel - yet somehow still often conflicting - paths searching for hair metal guitar legend status, a career as a journeyman 4th line center in the NHL, and the treasured laminates to be a hanger-on in the circus that is Formula 1.
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