Panthers look to change losing ways vs Seahawks

Sep. 08, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

The last time the Carolina Panthers had a winning record was the final game of the 2008 season. Since then, they've been at or below .500.

Quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers look to change those losing ways Sunday when they host the Seattle Seahawks.

It won't be an easy task.

The Seahawks are considered one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

They feature a balanced offense led by second-year quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch, along with one of the game's best defenses.

Seattle allowed a league-low 15.3 points per game last season, and there's nothing in the preseason that suggests things have changed from 2012.

"They have an unbelievable cornerback tandem with how tall they are and how they can move, so it will be a challenge for our receivers to excel in one-on-one matchups," said Newton, who led Carolina's offense to only three points in a 16-12 loss to Seattle last October.

The Panthers are focused on starting strong after beginning the last four seasons 2-8, 2-8 and 1-9 and 4-6 and never getting above that elusive .500 mark.

Carolina hasn't been to the playoffs since 2008 and hasn't won a playoff game since 2005 — a season that ended with a loss to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game.

Five things to watch in this rematch:

PANTHERS' OFFENSIVE LINE: This game will likely be won in the trenches, which means there is a lot of pressure on Carolina's patchwork offensive line.

The Panthers' first-team offense hasn't looked particularly good in the preseason, and they'll likely start Travelle Wharton, who just joined the team last week, at left guard because of an injury to Amini Silatolu. Right guard and right tackle remain big question marks, too, with Garry Williams and Byron Bell.

Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula wanted to put added emphasis on the running backs this year. That would mean more carries for DeAngelo Williams since Jonathan Stewart starts the season on the physically unable to perform list.

In last year's 16-12 win, the Seahawks held Carolina's running backs to a combined 25 yards on 11 carries.

NEWTON'S NEW WEAPONS: Newton struggled last year against the Seahawks, held to 141 yards passing and 42 yards rushing — well below his season averages. Carolina's only touchdown came on an interception return by Captain Munnerlyn.

For the Panthers to be effective, Newton needs to have a big game. He has some new weapons to work with in wide receivers Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr., who is coming off a strong preseason. Steve Smith remains Newton's favorite target, but look for the third-year quarterback to rely heavily on tight end Greg Olsen and dump passes to the running backs.

WILSON SOPHOMORE SLUMP?: It's happened time and time again in the league — a player who puts up record-setting numbers as a rookie struggles coming out of the gates in Year 2. Wilson is hoping to avoid that lull after a fantastic rookie season in which he led the Seahawks to a playoff appearance and tied the NFL rookie record with 26 touchdowns passing.

Wilson need only look at the other sideline to see proof of the so-called "sophomore slump." Newton got off to a slow start last season — he had five TD passes and eight interceptions after seven games — after being selected Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.

LYNCH TRAIN ROLLS: Lynch ran for more than 100 yards in eight of the team's final 10 games and looks to maintain that trend against an improved Panthers defensive front seven that includes last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, Luke Kuechly.

Since November 2011, no NFL running back has rushed for more yards than Lynch. With Lynch averaging five yards per carry, the Seahawks will get him the ball early and often. This will be a big test right off the bat for Panthers rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the team's top two draft picks.

PANTHERS' CLOSE GAMES: Panthers coach Ron Rivera is 2-12 in games decided by seven points or less in his two seasons, a reflection of their inability to close out an opponent late.

"We have to find ways to finish," Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said.

Chances are this game is going to be close. Seattle's largest defeat since Nov. 13, 2011, was a seven-point loss to San Francisco in Week 7 of last season.