One half of the NFC Agni Kai (The showdown that was always meant to be) is set, and we now arrive at the Main Event of the weekend, where the epitome of overratedness gets exposed before the entire country.
Yes, that's right, you heard me, the Carolina Panthers are overrated. Vastly so. Not even close to as good as their record is making everybody think they are.
Why do I say that? Simple; the one thing that nobody is mentioning in their "MVP! MVP!" hosannas to Cam Newton and his teammates from "Nature Boy" Ric Flair's hometown: The Panthers played the easiest schedule in the National Football League.
That, of course, is hardly their fault. You play the schedule the league puts before you. It just so happens that the schedule the NFL gave Carolina was a lineup consisting almost entirely of creampuffs and pushovers.
Consider: The Panthers played in the NFC South (combined opponents record 21-27, .438). Their NFC divisional draw was the East (combined record 26-38, .406). Their AFC divisional draw was the South (combined record 25-39, .391). They played only two double-digit win teams (us and the Packers). Not to put too fine a point on that, but if Seattle had had that schedule, we'd have gone 15-1 as well, and that includes the Panthers' 27-23 win at Century Link in Week 6.
Now let's take a gander at the Seahawks' strength of schedule, shall we? We played in the NFC West (combined opponents record 25-23, .521). Our NFC divisional draw was the North (combined record 34-30, .531). Our AFC divisional draw was the North (combined record 30-34, .469). Plus our schedule was heavily front-loaded with tough away games (Rams, Packers, Bengals) to try and take us out of the running early. Give Cam Newton and the boys our schedule and I estimate they'd have posted a record in the 11-5 range, not testing the old 1972 Miami Dolphins' deodorant.
Which brings us to my next point: While the Panthers are most definitely overrated, I am in no way, shape, or form saying that they aren't good. Very good. Last season was more of an anomaly for them, especially after the run they went on to the #2 seed and first round bye in 2013. This season they simply rounded back into their winning form. I don't by any means expect a walkover today at Bank of America Stadium. Seahawks-Panthers games are always tough, hard-nosed, hard-fought, close, low-scoring affairs (16-12 in 2012, 12-7 in 2013, 13-9 last year, all at Charlotte, followed by our 31-17 win in the playoffs at home that the "Kam-quake" pick six made look more lopsided than it really was). The two teams have long been mirror-images of each other (mobile, resourceful QBs, run-first offenses, suffocating defenses). This game will be no different.
It will be different, however, from Carolina's aforementioned 27-23 victory back in Week 6, for several reasons. (1) Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner will play this time (he was out with a pectoral injury the first go-round), which means his run-stopping ability will make it much more difficult for Newton to sustain drives, especially in the fourth quarter as he did last game's epic comeback). Yes, the Panthers will have Jonathan Stewart, but ask Adrian Peterson what our run defense is like these days. (2) Week 6 was during the Cary Williams cornerback experiment. That experiment didn't work out. Now we've got LOBer Jeremy Lane in that spot, fully recovered from his torn ACL and having his hand almost torn off his arm in Super Bowl XLIX, and Desean Shead playing the slot nickleback role on passing downs. So Kam Chancellor will have help on tight end Greg Olsen, who caught the winning touchdown pass last time. And (3) Defensive Coordinator Kris Richard was, early in the season, trying to fix what wasn't broken in the LOB. Once he went back to the basic man/zone hybrid coverage that is our bread & butter, back came the best defense in the NFL, which led the league in scoring defense for the fourth consecutive season, a feat not seen since the 1950s.
Oh, yes, and Marshawn Lynch fully practiced this week and says he's feeling better than he was last week and made the plane to Charlotte and is going to play today. What that means, everybody knows. And it'll be fifty degrees warmer in Charlotte, so the meteorological handcuffs, legirons, and straitjacket the best offense in football over the last half of the season was in a week ago in Minneapolis is a distant memory. And when you pressure Cam Newton, he becomes a lot less resourceful a quarterback than Russell Wilson, and we've got a D-line rotation (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Atoya Rubin, Brandon Mebane, Frank Clark, etc.) to rival the one we had two years ago.
POWER RANKING: Seahawks #1, Panthers #4
TOTAL OFFENSE: Seahawks #4, Panthers #11
RUSHING OFFENSE: Panthers #2, Seahawks #3
PASSING OFFENSE: Seahawks #20, Panthers #24
TOTAL DEFENSE: Seahawks #2, Panthers #6
RUSHING DEFENSE: Seahawks #1, Panthers #4
PASSING DEFENSE: Seahawks #2, Panthers #11
I see this game as a close parallel to the one between Carolina and San Francisco in 2013. Same overinflated Carolina record, same first round bye, same superior team coming into their building and ending their season. And then the NFC Championship Game everybody wants to see will be set.
This game is more than a little weird, and difficult on which to get a handle. On the one hand, Pittsburgh has a killer passing offense with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. On the other hand, Roethlisberger has a gimpy shoulder, Brown may or may not be out with a concussion, and Pittsburgh can't run much without DeAngelo Williams. On the one hand, the Broncos have the best passing defense in the league; on the other hand, the Steelers blew their doors off with over three hundred and fifty passing yards and three touchdowns in a 34-27 win at Heinz Field a month ago.
And then, what are we to make of Denver's offense with Peyton Manning once again under center? Will we see the future Hall of Famer or will we see the guy that, metaphorically speaking, fell down the stairs and pooped his pants, leading to being benched in favor of NOT future Hall of Famer Brock F'ing Osweiler?
POWER RANKING: Steelers #3, Broncos #7 (of eight teams remaining)
TOTAL OFFENSE: Steelers #3, Broncos #16
RUSHING OFFENSE: Steelers #16, Broncos #17
PASSING OFFENSE: Steelers #3, Broncos #14
TOTAL DEFENSE: Broncos #1, Steelers #21
RUSHING DEFENSE: Broncos #3, Steelers #5
PASSING DEFENSE: Broncos #1, Steelers #30
That abysmal Steelers secondary should make the decision for me, but I remember how underwhelming the Broncos looked last year in their ignominious one-and-done against Indy, and they haven't impressed me since Thanksgiving.
When's the last time Arrowhead Stadium hosted an AFC Championship Game? Try never. Until next Sunday afternoon, that is.