Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte - TV: FOX
*Keys to the game: The Panthers engineered a pair of 80-yard scoring drives on the league's top-ranked defense when Carolina stormed back from a 13-point second-half deficit to stun the Seahawks in Seattle, 27-23 on Oct. 18. There have been several key changes to personnel on both sides of the ball, but these are opponents who know each other well as they play for the sixth time in the past four seasons and the third time in 13 months.
Seattle's offense struggled to get untracked in the severe cold in Minnesota last week, and it's the Panthers' stout front four that is of primary concern this Sunday. The Seahawks' offensive line will be physically overmatched, and the availability of RB Marshawn Lynch might not be known until game time. Christine Michael has been steady since Thomas Rawls was lost for the season, but the Seahawks do miss Lynch's ability to move the pile even when holes aren't there.
This is a far different offense than Carolina face in the regular season. Seattle is spreading the field more, allowing QB Russell Wilson to get the ball out his hands quickly and letting his receivers make plays against a Panthers secondary that lacks impact players outside of CB Josh Norman. TE Jimmy Graham led the Seahawks with eight catches for 140 yards in the first meeting. He's out, but Luke Willson is expected to return from a concussion and is a solid receiving threat over the seam.
Panthers QB Cam Newton recovered from a poor first half to dissect the Legion of Boom in Seattle. TE Greg Olsen caught seven passes for 131 yards and the game-winning 32-yard touchdown on a busted coverage - one of a slew the Seahawks have suffered against tight ends this season. RB Jonathan Stewart returns from a foot injury. He managed only 3.9 yards per carry in the first meeting, but combined with Newton to rush for three touchdowns. Carolina will continue to hammer away on the ground, using Stewart and Newton to steadily whittle away and stay out of dangerous long passing situations.
*Matchup to watch - Seahawks SS Kam Chancellor vs. Olsen: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Olsen is every bit the threat of Rob Gronkowski - lofty praise, but the Seahawks have been regularly victimized by Olsen in recent years. Chancellor has struggled in coverage against tight ends all season, including a pass interference penalty and huge missed tackle on Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph on the final drive last week. OLB K.J. Wright could figure into the coverage game plan more. He was forced to start in the middle in the first meeting with Bobby Wagner out.
*Player spotlight - Panthers CB Robert McClain: With Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman out for the season, the overlooked concern with Carolina is McClain and Cortland Finnegan, midseason pickups who will be targeted often by the Seahawks' heavy use of three-wide sets featuring Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette.
*Fast facts: The Seahawks have won two previous playoff meetings, both in Seattle. ... Wilson's 53 overall wins, 47 regular-season wins and seven playoff wins are the most in NFL history by a quarterback through four seasons. ... Newton is the first player in NFL history with 30-plus touchdown passes (35) and 10-plus rushing touchdowns (10) in a season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
All five of the recent meetings have been decided late, and there is no reason to believe this one will be any different. While the Seahawks are coming off a rigorous wild card trip to Minnesota and traveling cross country, the Panthers are rested and QB Cam Newton has shown the ability to make critical plays with the game on the line this season.
*Our pick: Panthers 27-24.