59% of the bets are on the defending champs.
Bottom LineOf all the games this weekend, I had the most trouble with this one. Mostly because of the inflated point spread, but also because of Carolina's late season surge. For the most part, the season-long stats held form in the Wild Card round, with the Panthers as the primary exception.
Are the Panthers a no-brainer pick with this point spread? I doubt it. The longer I dig into this matchup, the harder it becomes to make a strong case for Carolina.
The obvious case against them is the fact that Seattle ranks as the best team in the league, with championship pedigree, and the most dominant home field advantage in the league. Carolina might have played this team tough over the last few years, but those were all at home, and they failed to pull out a win in any of them. Pete Carroll is also 15-1 in prime-time games during his time as Seattle's coach, too. That's a daunting wall to climb if you're the road team, no matter how well you're playing coming in.
How can the Panthers stay close? A big key will be the play of Cam Newton. Yes their read-option game caught fire at the right time, but they didn't face any fast defenses during their five-game winning streak - nor did they go against a unit as talented. Even if they do manage to break through to the second level, Seattle has a secondary that is capable of coming down to make the tackle. Instead, they'll need Cam to make big plays with his arm, and from where I'm sitting, that's not a winning proposition at all. There are simply no weaknesses in the Seahawks D to exploit.
A better chance for the Panthers will be with their defense. They finished as a top 10 unit, but they were still a better side at home (11th) than they were on the road (17th). They also have red flags in their make-or-break situations. Despite shutting down the Cardinals, they still gave up two red zone touchdowns when Arizona had the opportunity. Now they face an offense that is near the top of the league in third down/red zone situations. Keep a close eye on this, because the Panthers only allowed one TD in eight red zone trips in their previous three games versus Seattle - something that I don't think carries over to this game.
If they are to slow down Seattle, they'll need excellent play from their secondary so that their front seven can play downhill with speed and aggressiveness. That's a tall task though, since no one is better at extending plays with their feet than Wilson. It's basically impossible to maintain coverage when he improvises in and out of the pocket.
This is also a Carolina D that no longer has Greg Hardy at their disposal, nor Star Lotulelei. On the other side, the Seahawks welcome back Max Unger at center - a big addition coming at just the right time.
In the end, I just can't back the Panthers here, even with all these points on the spread. Their margin of error is too slim, and they need a lot of breaks to go in their favor. The odds of that happening are significantly stacked against them.
It's a lot of points to lay, and I won't be surprised if the Seahawks win without covering, but when forced to make a pick, Seattle is the only option I can consider. I'll wait as long as possible to see if I can get -10 before locking in this pick, but if -10.5 is the lowest it goes - so be it. UPDATE: as books begin to adjust juice and move this line back up, I'll go ahead and take the -10.5. It's not a good number, and it still might come back down late, but it could be the best we get.
NFL pick: SEA -10.5.
Read more: Divisional picks.