An argument can be made that one of the NFL’s three best teams will be eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday when the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks meet in Charlotte.
Led and inspired by Cam Newton, the favorite to win MVP honors for the season, Carolina (15-1) turned in the best record in the NFC regular season, was 8-0 at home and led the league in scoring.
Not many No. 6 seeds have been feared as much as the Seahawks. And for good reason. With Russell Wilson and their defensive capability, they will be a load in reasonable weather conditions. Seattle has played in the last two Super Bowls, winning one and losing the other on a controversial goal-line play call.
Sunday’s AFC game should match two of the league’s most effective quarterbacks, but it may not. Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers may be unable to play or perform well because of a right shoulder injury, and Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos is a shell of his former self with a foot condition on top of the limitations of his aging right arm. That takes a lot of the luster off what might have been a classic confrontation.
A capsule look at Sunday’s NFL Divisional Round games:
Seahawks (11-6) at Panthers (15-1)
TV: FOX, 1:05 p.m.
The line: Panthers (-2).
The scoop: Seattle lucked out when Blair Walsh of the Vikings missed a sure-shot field goal last week in frigid conditions in Minneapolis. Weather conditions will be more favorable to offensive football today, so Wilson of the Seahawks should be able to resume the roll he was on at the end of the regular season. He finished with 4,024 passing yards, 34 TDs and only eight interceptions while rushing for 553 yards. His WRs, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett, will test the Carolina secondary, although Panthers CB Josh Norman will probably be shadowing Lockett or Kearse. … Seattle has the most celebrated defense in the NFL. It led the NFC at 291.8 yards per game. A big plus for the Seahawks would be getting RB Marshawn Lynch back. He has not played since undergoing abdominal surgery in November. … Despite a 14-game unbeaten streak to start the season and a well-balanced performance, Carolina and Newton are finding it difficult to get the respect they deserve. The Panthers won the NFC South going away, losing only at Atlanta. But they had some close shaves, including a 27-23 road win over the Seahawks on Oct. 18. They also had wins by a touchdown or less at home against Houston, Indianapolis and Green Bay and had three-point road wins at New Orleans and the New York Giants. The Panthers scored a franchise record 500 points, most in the league. Newton accounted for 45 (35 passing, 10 rushing) of their 59 touchdowns. Greg Olsen’s seven touchdown catches among his team-leading 77 receptions for a 14.3 average were high for a tight end. The Panthers expect to have RB Jonathan Stewart back after he missed the final two regular-season games with a sprained foot. Ted Ginn, Jr., their fastest WR, also is ready to play.
Outlook: More big-game experience leads to the conclusion that Seattle will win a tight one, 23-20.
Steelers (11-6) at Broncos (12-4)
TV: CBS, 4:40 p.m.
The line: Broncos (-7½).
The scoop: Unless Roethlisberger is able to play and perform to close to his normal extent despite his shoulder injury, it looks like a QB duel between Pittsburgh backup Landry Jones and Manning, who has not started a game since Nov. 15 against Kansas City when he was benched. He relieved Brock Osweiler in the final game of the season and led a win over San Diego. Osweiler (knee) missed practice time this week, so Manning seems like the sure starter. How effective the 39-year-old can be throwing downfield is problematical. He passed for nine TDs with 17 interceptions and a 67.9 passer rating in the regular season. Otherwise, there are few questions about the Broncos. Between them, running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson ran for 1,583 yards and 12 touchdowns. WRs Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are deep threats, and TE Owen Daniels had 77 catches. Also, Wade Phillips’ defense led the NFL, allowing only 283.1 yards per game. They also had 52 sacks, led by Von Miller’s 11. … Pittsburgh has injury questions all over the place. Jones started just one game in the absence of Roethlisberger and Michael Vick. For the season, he completed 58.2 passes with three TDs and four INTs. WR Antonio Brown (concussion) may not be cleared to play until game time. Without Brown, the Steelers will need big games from Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Bryant missed the first five games of the regular season and still ended up with 92 catches for a 15.3 average and six touchdowns. RB DeAngelo Williams missed the Cincinnati playoff game last week, so Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was not on the roster until Nov. 29, or Jordan Todman may have to start. The defense in 2015 was not up to Steeler standards but still had 48 sacks in the regular season. The pass defense allowed 29 TD passes and an 11.8 yard average per catch.
Outlook: Cincinnati was a more complete team than Pittsburgh, but this is what we have: a crippled Steelers team on the road at Mile High against a Broncos team that may be limited because of Manning’s physical issues. All signs point to a 17-9 Denver victory.