The Carolina Panthers started strong and fizzled away as Cam Newton couldn’t keep up with Russell Wilson, leading the Seattle Seahawks to a 31-17 divisional round playoff victory, moving one step closer towards defending their Super Bowl title.
If there was one thing that set the two teams apart was the Seahawks’ ability to convert on third down. Not that the Panthers didn’t convert their chances (9-of-16) but the Seahawks have been so bad at making it happen this season (16th in the NFL with a 1.6 offensive efficiency), that their 7-of-13 with a 10.9 offensive efficiency, which included three touchdown passes by Wilson, made a world of a difference.
There was also the ability to protect Wilson, more or less. He was only sacked twice, which meant he wasn’t forced to scramble as much as on most days. He did run for 22 yards while Marshawn Lynch struggled moving through the middle of the line unlike early assumptions, held to just 4.2 yards per carry, but he was given enough time and space to make things happen with his arms, proving to be the deciding factor.
It doesn’t really matter if Russell Wilson is the product of a system that allows him to be great or is simply a young, elite quarterback who is going to dominate for many years. Wilson was the definition of clutch on third down, completing 8-of-8 for 199 yards and three touchdowns. His 24.9 yards per attempt on third down was the highest by any qualified quarterback in a single game this season. He finished the game with 15-of-22 for 268 yards and a passer rating of 149.2.
Cam Newton? He tried making things happen with his feet, rushing for 37 yards. He tried to hard to get his team out of the hole they were falling into during the fourth quarter and threw a pick six to Kam Chancellor which ended the game and the season for his team. He looked good only when targeting Kelvin Benjamin, and you can’t ride just one wide receiver an entire game. There was also his interception throw to Richard Sherman, surprisingly his first postseason interception, boosting his big ego even more.
Newton finished with 23-of-36 for 246 yards, but one of his two touchdown passes came deep in garbage time. He was 7-of-9 with the two touchdown throws when targeting Benjamin, but only 16 of 27 with two interceptions when trying to find other Panthers players. Even in wins, Newton is prone to make mistakes, costly ones. The problem was that unlike in the previous week, the team against him made him pay dearly enough so there would be no comeback.
Just like in the Patriots game, almost turnovers made a world of a difference. The Seahawks fumbled the ball twice but managed to recover. The Panthers ended up turning the ball over three times, and in a stadium and against a team that demands you to play a mistake-free game in order to overcome, that was a bit too much for a team that entered the postseason on a sub .500 record, suggesting that being in the divisional round is a bit of stretch.
The Seahawks defense wasn’t perfect as through most of the regular season finale, but it takes a much bigger effort from opponents to make them feel hard pressed and strained when playing at home. Their road to the Super Bowl seems as clear as ever, even if it does include playing either the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, two teams they’ve already faced at home this season, once again. For the Panthers, it’s back to drawing board, and having doubts on whether or not Cam Newton is worth the massive extension he’s about to receive.