Identical Panthers poised to knock off champs

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Picture an NFL team with a dynamic dual-threat quarterback leading its offense. He's been there a few years, and, at this point, he's a star in the league. The team he leads has won each of its last four games and most recently blistered an opponent to the tune of 27-16, allowing a mere 78 total yards on defense. In fact, it's not the offense that is most feared about this team, but a smothering defense that the team has built its reputation and drive to the playoffs on. Its defense is ranked within the top 10 of the league, and is in the top three in amount of fumbles created in the NFL this season.

Now, since I revealed that this team has one a playoff game -- more specifically, has won a playoff game 27-16 -- you know that I'm talking about the Carolina Panthers. But everything else could also be applied to the Seattle Seahawks.

Of course, Seattle also owns a franchise quarterback who knows how to throw and run in Russell Wilson. Similar to Cam Newton, Wilson also threw for over 3,000 yards while running for at least 500 yards this year. However, Wilson rushed for a few hundred more, picking up 849 yards on the ground. The Seahawks also find themselves on a run, as they have won six in a row leading up to Saturday's tussle in Seattle.

But it's the makeup of the teams that drives the comparisons. A strong, hard-nosed running game on offense and a defense that is not afraid to pop you in the mouth is the trademark of both of these teams. That is why, if any team will take down the Seahawks this postseason, it is going to be the Panthers.

These two teams met up earlier this season, and it was exactly what you'd expect: a 6-6 game going into the fourth quarter. Only one touchdown was scored in the game, and it was by the Seahawks with 47 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

What's most impressive about the Panthers' near victory over the Seahawks was Cam Newton's effectiveness on play-action plays. Newton was 9-of-twelve for 110 yards when running the play-action in the loss to the Seahawks. But even more impressive was Newton's ability to pull that off with a running back that only rushed for 79 yards on the day. Even that was a season high for Stewart, who had only rushed for 138 yards through four games.

Stewart has recently rediscovered the mojo that he misplaced at the end of the 2009 season, collecting 609 yards on the ground over the last six games. Carolina's record during that stretch? 5-1. He even posted 123 rush yards against an Arizona Cardinals defense-the ninth-best defense in the league according to total yards.

Before this season, the last time Stewart rushed for 100 yards was on Dec. 19, 2010. Jimmy Clausen started that game at quarterback for the Panthers. Just eight days before that, Cam Newton was awarded the Heisman Trophy while playing for Auburn. Stewart played in 42 games between 100-yard rushing performances.

Newton's effectiveness through the air and specifically utilizing play action rests squarely on Stewart's ability the run the ball. However, Carolina owns two 1,000-yard receivers in Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin for the first time with Newton under center. The Panthers will likely look to exploit the success they had against the Seahawks previously this season now riding a successful run game.
Inversely, the Seahawks have historically struggled to run the ball against Carolina, as the Panthers have limited running back Marshawn Lynch to 190 yards in each of the last three times these two teams have played.

Marshawn Lynch against Carolina Panthers:
2012: 21 attempts for 85 yards
2013: 17 attempts for 43 yards
2014: 14 attempts for 62 yards

It's relatively safe to say that a 63.3 ypg average for Beast Mode won't get the job done in January against the Panthers. But, as we've learned by now, Lynch either pulls off runs like this in the playoffs or he stinks up the joint. In the Seahawks' two playoff losses with Lynch, he has rushed 20 times for 48 yards. However, in the team's five wins in the playoffs, he has tallied 551 yards on 104 carries. That's a 2.4 average when the team loses compared to a 5.3 average when they win.

David Roberts is a fourth-year English major at the University of South Carolina. He was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, but relocated to the land below the Mason-Dixon line in grade school, citing earthquakes and Raiders fans as minor nuisances. David is a die-hard Cubs fan and still breaks down when thinking about the 2003 NLCS. Follow him on Twitter: @davidjayroberts
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