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By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Seattle Seahawks are a stylish pick to represent the NFC in this year's Super Bowl and the long and winding road begins Sunday against the host Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
Seattle came close to advancing to last season's conference championship game, losing in the waning seconds at Atlanta in the divisional round. The Seahawks went 11-5 a year ago, the best mark since going 10-6 in 2007, and are pegged to compete with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West.
The Seahawks owe a lot of last season's success to quarterback Russell Wilson, who beat out Matt Flynn for the starting job as a rookie. Wilson never relinquished his golden opportunity and because of that the Seahawks have high hopes for 2013. Wilson started all 16 games last season, going 8-0 at home, and passed for 3,118 yards with 26 touchdown passes, tying Peyton Manning's rookie record.
Wilson, who had a 100-plus passer rating in nine games in 2012 and exceeded all expectations, will try not to struggle through the so-called sophomore slump now that opposing defenses will be keying in on last April's third-round draft choice. Head coach Pete Carroll is confident in his signal caller and knows Wilson makes everyone around him that much better.
"Russell is the kind of player that will affect other guys," Carroll said recently. "He affects everybody around him and hopefully that will help everybody play better."
Seattle has reached the playoffs twice in the previous three seasons and was riding a six-game winning streak until falling to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. The Seahawks overcame a 20-0 deficit to make it interesting and the outcome could have been different had Marshawn Lynch been able to find an opening across the offensive line. Lynch is another star for the Seahawks and perhaps gives the team a better chance to win than Wilson.
As difficult as that may be to believe, Lynch has been born again in the Pacific Northwest and Carroll will feed the hard-charging back as much as possible. Lynch has transformed himself into one of the top backs in the league and was third in the NFL last season with a career-high 1,590 rushing yards. Lynch had 100 or more yards rushing in eight of the final 10 games in 2012 and leads the NFL with 2,531 rushing yards since Nov. of 2011.
The Seahawks have lost two straight and three of their last four season openers and are winless in the past three lid-lifters on the road. They haven't won a season opener on the road since Sept. 10, 2006 at Detroit and will start the season away from home for the 10th time in 14 years.
Carolina has missed the playoffs each of the past four years and, like Seattle, is counting on big things in 2013. Quarterback Cam Newton set the bar high this offseason by saying: "The time is now."
Newton said that during a radio interview and touched on how the atmosphere is much different than a year ago. Whether the new attitude serves a purpose in 2013 is unknown, but Newton is saying all the right things.
"We're looking at the small things that can make a big difference. It starts here in practice. We can't hold ourselves accountable to a standard in a game if we don't do it in practice," Newton said. "That's been something of a different vibe in practice. It's been working out for us."
The Panthers enter the new season with a chip on their shoulder and teams should be wary of what they could do. After a lowly 1-6 start a season ago, the team was able to come together and finish strong, going 6-3 the rest of the way with four straight victories to close the season.
Carolina hasn't had a winning season since 2008, when it was 12-4, and finished the 2009 campaign at 8-8. Head coach Ron Rivera was given a pass by owner Jerry Richardson in January, when it was confirmed he will return for a third season. But 2013 could be his last if the Panthers fail to meet requirements. Carolina was 6-10 in Rivera's first season, but the team rallied at the end of 2012 to finish 7-9. The four-game winning streak to end the season gave hope to Rivera.
"We played a lot of young players who gained valuable experience that should help us in the coming season," Rivera said. "There are a lot of positives to take away from last season, but they are only meaningful if we learn from them in 2013."
Carolina has lost four straight season openers.
Sunday's matchup between the Panthers and Seahawks will be the sixth in the regular season. The teams split the first four encounters, then the Seahawks won last season's meeting, 16-12, on Oct. 7 in the Tar Heel State.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Newton has been all the rage the past two seasons in which he's amassed 7,920 passing yards. He is the only quarterback with 500-plus rushing yards in each of his first two seasons and shouldn't have to shoulder the ground load with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield.
But Lynch deserves some credit, too, for his transformation in Seattle. How Lynch goes, the Seahawks will go this season. The Panthers and Seahawks have similar dilemmas with athletic QBs and an above average backfield, but Seattle has the edge with Lynch.
Once Lynch gets into "Beast Mode" he's pretty tough to stop. He leads the NFL with 16 100-yard rushing games since 2011 and has hit that mark in 16 of his last 25 games. While Wilson has Sidney Rice and Golden Tate to throw passes to, it may be easier for him to just stick the ball into Lynch's midsection.
Lynch, the third player (Chris Warren, Shaun Alexander) in Seahawks history to rush for 1,500 yards in a season, came within one touchdown of matching his career-high of 13 back in 2011. Lynch has a streak of four straight 100-yard rushing games alive to start the 2013 campaign for the Seahawks, who have compiled 100-plus rushing yards in 21 of the past 25 games. Lynch ran for 85 yards on 21 carries in last year's game against Carolina.
Since Week 9 of 2011, Seattle's 3,791 yards ranks first in the NFL.
The Panthers, though, will counter Lynch and the Seattle offense with second- year stud linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was the NFL's top tackler his rookie season with 164 stops. Kuechly helped turn around Carolina's defense by season's end and earned the praise of his teammates.
"He's done a fantastic job. He just makes plays. He's a young guy who didn't come in entitled. He was real eager to learn. He takes notes," Panthers star wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It doesn't surprise me how much success he's having. I think he hasn't even cracked the surface."
Smith will have an interesting matchup with Seahawks flamboyant and trash- talking cornerback Richard Sherman, who helped contain Carolina's top wideout to the tune of 40 yards on four catches.
Left defensive end Charles Johnson recorded a team-leading and a career-high 12 1/2 sacks last season and is Carolina's top pass rusher. Johnson has posted 33 1/2 sacks over the past three seasons and hopes to contain Wilson and Seattle ground attack.
Seattle's defensive front is nicked up and that will most likely lead to its demise Sunday. Sack leader Chris Clemons will not be 100 percent because of his rehab from anterior cruciate ligament knee surgery in January. Clemons, though, was activated from the PUP list during final roster cuts to avoid missing the first six games.
"To take the next step he needs to start pushing people and all that," Carroll said of Clemons. "He's coming along great, and he's making great progress."
Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane (groin), Tony McDaniel (groin) and rookie Jordan Hill (strained biceps) are all questionable because of injuries, while offseason acquisition Cliff Avril is nursing a hamstring issue.
The turf at Bank of America Stadium will need re-surfacing when the Panthers and Seahawks are through Sunday. In a matchup between teams aiming to exceed last season's expectations, it will come down to which defense makes stops and gets off the field often.
Even though Carolina has a chip on its shoulder from last season's late success, the Seahawks are a more polished bunch and losing on opening weekend will be detrimental to their psyche.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 21, Panthers 17
09/05 11:24:36 ET