CHARLOTTE, N.C. — You don’t need to remind Steve Smith about the importance of beating Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks today.
“It’s beyond important – it’s essential,” Smith said.
Since Smith arrived in Carolina in 2001, the Panthers (1-3) have started the season 1-4 three times. None of them turned out particularly well.
That’s not surprising.
Teams that dig themselves into such a hole traditionally have a hard time pulling out. Since 1978, 156 teams have begun the season 1-4 with only seven – less than five percent – reaching the playoffs, according to STATS LLC.
Even more discouraging, no team has ever started 1-4 and gone on to reach the Super Bowl.
Smith said a win this week against the Seahawks is vital “for our fans, for some people’s jobs and the overall atmosphere around here, because with every loss things get tighter and tighter.”
“Right now we’re straddling the fence between falling off and staying on,” he said.
To stay on the Panthers will have to the Seahawks (2-2), a team that has survived mostly with great defense, a solid running game and a gift victory over Green Bay after replacement officials botched a last-second, game-winning touchdown pass from Wilson to Golden Tate.
This game features a contrast in styles and strengths.
The Seahawks run the ball well, don’t throw it much and play solid defense. The Panthers throw the ball well, score quite a bit and don’t play much defense, at least not in the secondary.
The Seahawks are last in the league in passing, averaging 130.8 yards per game through the air.
Wilson has not thrown for more than 160 yards in a game, but this is a special game for him.
He makes his return to the state where he first gained acclaim as a quarterback. He played college football at North Carolina State and dabbled in minor league baseball with the Asheville Tourists and Gastonia Grizzlies before returning to college football and finishing up at Wisconsin.
He long ago gave up trying to get tickets for everyone, but expects more than 50 family and friends will attend Sunday’s game.
And with high-priced backup quarterback Matt Flynn waiting in the wings if he messes up, Wilson is hoping to show folks he can handle a starting job in the NFL.
“The more experience you get, the slower the game gets,” said Wilson, only the sixth quarterback drafted in the third round or later to start right away as a rookie.
“That way you’re just reacting all the time. I’m not thinking too much. It’s more of getting in the flow of the game - you have to keep working at it. All the way from preseason to the place I’m at right now, I feel so much better, so much stronger. My poise and my confidence never waver.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows his team has a big challenge ahead.
The Seahawks don’t play particularly well on the road and they’re facing an angry Carolina team still irritated after giving away a game last week to the Atlanta Falcons in the final minute.
So while his defense ranks second in the league overall, Carroll said getting a grip on an unfamiliar offense like Carolina’s is difficult.
“Boy this is a loaded offense we’re dealing with,” Carroll said. “We had a lot of respect for Cam Newton coming out in the draft and we evaluated him heavily and saw the potential there.
“We of course didn’t see him last year, but to see him now and see the offense that they’re running and what they’re doing with the three running backs that they have. With Greg Olsen and Steve Smith outside, this is a really, really difficult offense. What they’ve done is put together an offense that is very explosive.”
The Panthers lead the league in “big plays” with 23 of 20 yards or more.
That’s something the Seahawks have struggled to find on offense.
What they do have is a powerful rushing attack led by Marshawn Lynch, the NFL’s leading rusher one month into the season. Lynch has run for at least 85 yards in 12 of his past 13 games.
Carolina’s defense is allowing 4.9 yards per carry, 29th in the league.
Lynch is the type of back that tends to give the Panthers defense problems.
He ran for 83 yards and three touchdowns in his last meeting with the Panthers two years ago helping the Seahawks score 28 unanswered points and overcome a 14-3 deficit.
Rivera called Lynch “as good as a running back there is in the league,” and what he calls a blend of what the Panthers have in speedy DeAngelo Williams and power back Jonathan Stewart.
“He’s a slasher and hits the crease very well and then has great acceleration once he gets through the crease,” Rivera said. “It’s a good challenge for us. So we are going to have to tackle better, that’s for doggone sure.”
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who had half of Carolina’s seven sacks last week, knows this week’s challenge is to stop Lynch first.
He doesn’t want to think about what will happen if they don’t.
“The difference between 1-4 and 2-3 is just tremendous,” Johnson said. “When you’re 1-4 it’s just a different vibe. When you’re 2-3 you feel like you’re still in it.”
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