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Clayton: What a win against the Panthers will mean for Seahawks’ playoff hopes

Two of the Seahawks' most important games this season have yet to be played. (AP)

The stage is set for the Seahawks to determine if they are a playoff team or not over the next three weeks.

Clayton: Expect another low-scoring Hawks-Panthers matchup

Two of the teams the Seahawks are competing against for an NFC wild card are on their schedule. First they’ll travel to face the Carolina Panthers Sunday, and then in Week 14, they’ll host a Minnesota Vikings team that historically has struggled in prime-time games.

Though these will be tough games, they are winnable. Playoff life would be easier for the Seahawks if they can beat the Panthers. It would put both teams at 6-5, but the Seahawks would not only have the playoff tie-breaker against Carolina, they’d also be facing an easier schedule.

After the Seahawks, the Panthers have four games against the NFC South, including two against the New Orleans Saints. What might help, at least for the Panthers, is that two of the three games against the Saints are in the final three weeks, and the Saints should clinch one of the top two spots in the seeding by then.

The Seahawks schedule breaks well for them. Four of their final five games will be at home and three will be against the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals — two teams that have a combined four wins. If the Seahawks can win those three games, they’ll need to go 2-1 against Carolina, Minnesota (on Dec. 10) and Kansas City (on Dec. 23) to get to 10 wins.

Ten wins should get them in to the postseason. Nine might do the game, but for nine to work, the Seahawks have to watch out against the Panthers and Vikings.

Here are a few thoughts going into the game:

• It is amazing to see how the Seahawks defense routinely performs against Cam Newton. In five regular-season games, Newton has completed only 52.1 percent of his passes, averaged only 6.25 yards per attempt and has three touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s had only five completions for longer than 25 yards.

He’s been better in two playoff games, completing 67.2 percent of his passes, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Limiting Newton is going to be a key to the game.

• Seahawks have health on their side after the 10-day break. Granted, K.J. Wright remains out with a knee injury. Doug Baldwin is questionable with a groin issue, but he’s been pain-free with his knee for more than a week. Pete Carroll said Friday Baldwin will be a game-time decision.

The Panthers have issues at wide receiver. Split end Devin Funchess is doubtful with a back injury and is coming off the worst game of his career. He dropped at least four passes last week against Detroit. After missing four games with a knee injury, wide receiver Torrey Smith should be able to play.

General manager Marty Hurney has made a priority in getting more speed in the receiving corps.

• How is the rebuild of the Seahawks defense being received? The first round of fan Pro Bowl voting came out Tuesday and the Seahawks got some recognition. With 10 sacks, Frank Clark ranked sixth among defensive ends. He’s fifth among 4-3 defensive ends.

Bobby Wagner is fourth in the voting at inside linebacker behind Luke Kuechly, Jaylon Smith and Blake Martinez. Defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who is having a breakout year, is ninth among defensive tackles.

The Seahawks have three special teams players getting acknowledged. Michael Dickson is second among punters. Tyler Lockett is seventh among returners. Barkevious Mingo is fourth on special teams (Mingo is on all but one special teams unit for the Seahawks).

• Both teams got a break with the weather. It’s expected to be in the low-sixties with a limited chance of rain.

John Clayton on 710 ESPN Seattle
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