Times staff reporter Bob Condotta breaks down Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game in Charlotte, N.C.
Staying tight on Olsen
One of the top two examples of the struggles the Seahawks had with tight ends this season happened in the first game against Carolina and Olsen (the other came a week earlier against Cincinnati and Tyler Eifert). Olsen, who had 77 receptions for 1,104 yards this season, led the Panthers with seven receptions for 131 yards and the game-winning touchdown. The TD was due to a blown coverage. But on the other passes Olsen simply found openings and QB Cam Newton had time to get the ball to him. The Seahawks say what makes Olsen somewhat unique among tight ends is the number of times the Panthers split him out, essentially using him as a receiver. “They really try to put him by himself a lot, and they really target him on third down,’’ said Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who did not play in the first game. “So we just have to make sure we know where he is on the field at all times.’’ Weak-side linebacker K.J. Wright and strong safety Kam Chancellor will be particularly critical in the coverage of Olsen as could be cornerback DeShawn Shead.
It can seem obvious to note the potential impact of turnovers on a game’s outcome. But rarely do the numbers spell out its possible importance quite this clearly. Carolina led the NFL with a plus-20 turnover margin and scored 148 points off of those takeaways, which also led the NFL. Carolina’s opponents, meanwhile, scored just 32 points off of their turnovers, a whopping margin of plus-116, which equals a touchdown a game and was 40 more than anyone else. The only team to allow fewer points off of its opponents turnovers this season? The Seahawks, whose foes scored just 29 points, due in large part to the fact that quarterback Russell Wilson threw just two interceptions in his last eight games, including one off of a tipped pass last week against the Vikings. “They have just hawked the football all year,’’ Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said this week. “Twenty-four picks, huge plays, great field changes. It’s added a lot to their scoring of course, and they’ve taken full advantage of getting ahead early and staying ahead, they’ve played well that way. Hopefully we can keep it close so that we don’t get in the mode that makes us vulnerable.’’
Cam vs. Russell
All NFL games inevitably turn on the play of the quarterbacks. That often is heightened in the playoffs, where every play comes with an increased importance and intensity. In Wilson, the Seahawks have a quarterback who already ranks tied for ninth in NFL history with seven postseason wins, having thrown 13 touchdown passes. He has five games with a passer rating of 104.6 or better and a career playoff passer rating of 93.9 that ranks seventh all-time, ahead of Tom Brady (89.0) and Peyton Manning (88.5). Newton is the front-runner for the NFL MVP Award after a breakout season that included 35 touchdown passes and another 10 running. But Newton is just 1-2 in the playoffs with five touchdowns and five interceptions (including the 90-yarder returned by Kam Chancellor for a game-clinching score for the Seahawks last season). He’ll be under pressure to only live up to his MVP status and continue a dream season for the Panthers. How he handles that pressure could decide the game.