National Football League
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PLAYOFFS
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             === Wilson, Seahawks get started against Panthers ===
 
 (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.
 
 OVERALL ANALYSIS:
 
 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
 
 
 09/06 10:15:27 ET