The Seahawks (5-5) will make their second-to-last road trip this week for a game against the Carolina Panthers (6-4) on Sunday, Nov. 25.
The Seahawks saw a boost in their playoff odds — currently hovering around 47 percent — with their Thursday night win over the Packers and a few key losses by other NFC Wild Card contenders in Week 11. A win over the Panthers would give Seattle a vital tie-breaker over another wild card team, and could be the different between making a trip to the postseason or staying at home in January for the second consecutive year.
A win Sunday is dependent on the performance of the Seahawks team as a whole, but a few key players could have a big role:
DE Frank Clark and DT Jarran Reed
Fourth-year defensive end Frank Clark is leading the Seahawks with 10 sacks, but Jarran Reed has also been a disruptive presence on the line, having nearly doubled his sack total from his first two seasons. But this Sunday, Clark, Reed and the rest of the Seahawks’ front seven will have their hands full thanks to the versatility of quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey.
The 6-feet-5, Newton has posed a challenge for defenders throughout his career and is especially deadly on read-option plays. He has accounted for at least 550 yards of his team’s season-long rushing total in all but one of his seven seasons. He’s up to 354 yards and four touchdowns on the ground this year. The three-time Pro Bowler is also connecting on a career-high 68 percent of his pass attempts this year for another 2,443 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Also making things difficult for Seattle’s No. 17-ranked rushing defense is Carolina’s use of Christian McCaffrey, who has averaged 70 rushing yards and 65 receiving yards in each of the last three games. Among all running backs, McCaffrey is second only to the Rams’ Todd Gurley in offensive snaps per game since Week 8, according to ESPN.
“The offense alone is a big challenge just because of read-zone option,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “You’ve got to respect Cam (Newton) as a runner. You got a lot of pulling and then you add (McCaffrey) to it, he’s able to hit the hole downhill, he’s able to get outside. They move around him a lot as a receiver, as a fly guy, so we have to just do a good job of knowing where he’s at and know what he likes to run in the certain spots that he’s at. It’ll be a good challenge.”
In Seattle’s favor will be the Panthers’ injury report, with at least one offensive weapon missing Sunday. Wide receiver Devin Funchess has been ruled out with a back injury, meaning Newton will be missing his No. 1 target. Fellow receiver Torrey Smith (currently listed as questionable) has missed the last four games but is expected to return.
RBs Chris Carson, Mike Davis and Rashaad Penny
The Seahawks have been the league’s top rushing team since Week 3 and have gained at least 150 yards on the ground per game since Week 4. They are the only team to have three separate running backs rush for 100-or-more yards in a single game (three times for lead back Chris Carson, and once each for Rashaad Penny and Mike Davis).
Meanwhile, the Panthers defense has allowed 150 or more rushing yards just once this season and has limited teams to an average of 98 rushing yards per game.
Seattle’s matchups with Carolina have traditionally been low-scoring affairs, and the Seahawks’ offense will look to control the clock by sticking with their run-first approach. Whether the trio of Carson, Davis and Penny will do enough to keep the Seahawks in control, though, will be one of Sunday’s more interesting battles.