Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
I had the Panthers as the 2nd hottest team coming into the playoffs. They won their final 4 straight games just to make the playoffs and, in their final 5 games, they moved the chains at a 77.38% rate, as opposed to 61.98% for their opponents, a differential of 15.40%, since their week 12 bye. Over that time period, their only loss was on the road in Minnesota, who returned two blocked punts for touchdowns, the definition of a fluke and the first time that had happened in a game in 40 years. Their schedule over that time period wasn’t very good, as they didn’t play a single playoff team, but even when strength of schedule is taken into account, they still ranked 2nd over the final 4 games of the season in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential at 15.06%.
It wasn’t just those final 4 or 5 games either as they ranked 7th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the final 8 games of the season among playoff teams. For the 4th straight year under Ron Rivera’s coaching, they’ve gotten significantly better down the stretch. In 2011, they started 2-8 and finished 6-10, winning 4 of their last 6 games. In 2012, they started 2-8 and finished 7-9, winning 5 of their last 6 games. Last year, they started 1-3 and finished 12-4, winning 11 of their last 12 games. And this year, they finished 7-8-1 after starting the season 3-8-1, winning their final 4 games.
The Panthers didn’t continue that into the playoffs last season, losing at home to the 49ers in the divisional round after sitting out the first round with a bye, but they did this season, beating the Cardinals 27-16. The Ryan Lindley led Cardinals are obviously not nearly as good as the 2013 49ers were, but the Panthers dominated that game more than the final score suggested, as they had 386 yards and 25 first downs to Arizona’s 78 yards and 8 first downs. They moved the chains at a 68.29% rate, as opposed to 45.45% for the Cardinals, which is impressive no matter who the opponent is. The Cardinals definitely didn’t have a playoff caliber offense, but they had a playoff caliber defense and then some, finishing the regular season 3rd, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.83% rate.
The problem for the Panthers is that they are running into the only team in the playoffs that came into them hotter, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks ranked 1st in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential over the final 4 games of the season, at 16.11%. They also ranked 1st in that aspect over the final 8 games of the season at 11.68% and just barely 2nd over the entire season at 6.78% (only Denver at 6.92% was better). Unlike the Panthers, an overall average team that got better as the season went on, the Seahawks are a dominant football team that played it’s best football over the final few weeks of the season, as they got healthier.
The Seahawks also have arguably the best homefield advantage in football. It wasn’t as pronounced this season as the Seahawks were good everywhere they went, moving the chains at a 74.06% rate at home, as opposed to 66.96% for their opponents (a differential of 7.10%), while moving the chains at a 76.10% rate on the road, as opposed to 70.42% for their opponents (a differential of 5.67%). However, since 2007, the Seahawks are 48-20 at home, including playoffs and they aren’t just having success straight up as they are 46-21-1 ATS (6-2 ATS this season). They outscore opponents on average by 7.93 points per game at home. This is opposed to a 27-42 record away from home (31-37-1 ATS), getting outscored by 2.80 points per game, a roughly 10.5 point swing.
Injuries are also a factor in this game. While Carolina is hot right now, they could be cooled off by the injury to Star Lotulelei, who is expected to be out for the rest of the playoffs with a foot injury. Lotulelei isn’t a star player (pun intended), but he was Pro Football Focus 22nd ranked defensive tackle this season and the Panthers really missed him when he missed 2 games earlier this season. Colin Cole, who drew the starts earlier this season and should start again, isn’t very good. On top of that, Cam Newton’s health is up in the air as now he adds an ankle injury (suffered last week) to his list of injuries. He’ll play this week and he’s been able to play some of the best football of his season down the stretch despite all the injuries, but he looked limited by the injury once he suffered it last week and it’s tough to know how close to 100% he’ll be this week.
On the flip side, Seattle is even hotter right now and they add star center Max Unger back into the starting lineup. Unger missed 10 games this season with injury, but he’s one of the best centers in the game when healthy. He was only average in 2013, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2012 and this season he ranked 4th despite all the missed time with injuries, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He’ll be a huge boost to this team and ironically he’ll match up often with Colin Cole. I mentioned earlier that the Seahawks got better as the season when on because they got healthier, with guys like Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor getting back to full strength. Unger’s return might be even bigger than those guys’ returns.
On top of that, Seattle has a huge advantage as a West Coast team in a night game against an East Coast team. Teams cover at about a 2/3rds rate in that spot historically because, while the Panthers will be shutting down for the night in the 2nd half of this game, the Seahawks will not have that issue. As much as I love the run that Carolina put up to end the season, I think it comes to a screeching halt this week as they face arguably the best team in football getting healthy and playing their best football of the season right now in arguably the toughest spot in football to win, without one of their top defensive players and with their quarterback banged up as an East Coast team in a West Coast night game. I have a good amount of confidence in Seattle to cover the 10.5.
Seattle Seahawks 27 Carolina Panthers 10
Pick against the spread: Seattle -10.5