Among the many surprises in the first month of the 2012 NFL season is an apparent power shift in the NFC to the Western Division, which is both good and bad news for the Seattle Seahawks (2-2), who appear to be part of the renaissance.
For the Carolina Panthers (1-3)? Regarding good and bad, it’s been mostly the latter the first four weeks of the season.
Regardless, as the calendar moves into October, both the Seahawks and Panthers appear to be fast approaching forks in the road for the 2012 campaign. Developments elsewhere in their respective divisions suggest that each are going to need to accelerate their pace in the next few weeks, or playoff hopes could be dashed before Halloween.
Thus, there’s a bit of urgency attached to Sunday’s clash between the sides at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. A quick midweek check of the Don Best NFL odds screen notes that host Carolina is a 3-point favorite at practically every Las Vegas sports book, with the total at 43½-44 and shaded to the ‘under.'
Kickoff time on Sunday will be later in the afternoon at 4:05 p.m. (ET), with FOX providing the TV coverage. Chris Myers, Tim Ryan and Jamie Maggio will provide the commentary.
Seattle has provided interesting copy for a variety of reasons this season. The new-look uniforms, featuring florescent green highlights and a new “wolf grey” color, have caused a stir (mostly positive). Then there was the wild Monday night game vs. Green Bay two weeks ago that proved the impetus for the NFL to settle its contract dispute with the referees. Along the way, the defense has emerged as one of the best. Competition in the NFC West has also upgraded, as the Seahawks, despite posting home wins over the Cowboys and Packers, have already lost on the road to improve division rivals Arizona and St. Louis.
But now there is some real concern about an offense that has been mostly stumbling the past few weeks. Wisconsin rookie QB Russell Wilson is being contained within the pocket, and the passing game has become mistake-prone. Only once in three weeks have the Seahawks exceeded 16 points.
Some observers are blaming ultra-conservative play-calling from offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for making things harder on Wilson, who has been hampered by limiting most of his throws to obvious passing downs. Many Seahawks fans are suggesting that Bevell and head coach Pete Carroll might as well opt for veteran QB Matt Flynn, the ex-Packer who was signed to a big-money free-agent contract in the offseason, if they’re going to be running such a bulletproof offense for Wilson.
If nothing else, Flynn is a viable default option in the Seahawks’ version of the West Coast offense. Still, there is concern about a wide receiving corps that has also had its problems gaining separation and remains a question mark. There was a reason Carroll was willing to gamble on taking a look at Terrell Owens in the preseason, as Seattle still lacks a legit downfield receiving threat.
And as good as the Seahawks’ defense has been, the team is not going to make the playoffs unless the offense begins to contribute more consistently. At the moment, Wilson – guilty of three picks last week in a 19-13 loss to the Rams in St. Louis – is simply not providing the necessary spark on the attack end. Stay tuned for further developments.
Defense, however, continues to key Seattle, whose airtight stop unit has also not allowed more than 20 points in a game this season. In particular, the Seahawks have been able to stuff opposing run games, as foes are gaining only a puny 3 yards per carry against the stout Seattle rush defense. Seattle also has 12 sacks through the first four weeks, including five from DE Chris Clemons.
Those developments against the run and rushing the passer should be of real concern to a Carolina offense that has also moved in fits and spurts this campaign and needs to establish its infantry diversion to give QB Cam Newton his best chance of igniting the Panther attack.
But we saw a couple of weeks ago against the Giants (as well as the opener vs. the Bucs) what can happen to Carolina’s “O” when the running game is stuffed at the line of scrimmage and when Newton’s escape routes out of the pocket are clogged. Cam has also been prone to pouting spells (prompting an upbraiding by vert WR Steve Smith in the Giants game) as his performances to date, which include just four TD passes and five picks, suggest a possible “sophomore slump” for the ex-Auburn Heisman trophy winner.
What success foes have experienced on the ground vs. the Seahawks thus far have been on draws and inside trap runs, taking advantage of the aggressive push by the Seattle defensive front. Expect the Panthers to isolate RBs DeAngelo Williams & Jonathan Stewart (if healthy for the latter) in such situations on Sunday.
On the plus side for the Panthers has been an improvement from their own pass rush which was a point of emphasis in the offseason. They’ve upgraded in that area, recording 12 sacks thus far, with Oklahoma rookie DE Frank Alexander emerging as a contributor. Although they’re also allowing 31 ppg over their last three games.
But the Panthers’ psyche (and that of Newton) has appeared a bit fragile this season, and we wonder how the team reacts to blowing a late lead last week at Atlanta, when the Falcons drove from their own one-yard line to a game-winning field goal in the last minute. With a bye week on deck, Carolina needs to develop some momentum in a hurry, or else it will be hitting late October with only one win, and its playoff hopes all but dashed.
Pointspread-wise, there are some Seahawks trends worth noting, especially recent successes as an underdog (8-1 vs. spread last nine receiving points) and an overall 13-5 mark against the number in their last 18 games on the board since early last season. The Seattle defense and the offense’s recent struggles behind Wilson have also combined for a potent ‘under’ recipe, as Seattle is ‘under’ in its first four games this season.