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Breaking down the NFC divisional playoff game: Panthers vs. Seahawks

Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers feels like the beginning of a playoff rivalry.

Like the old Packers-Cowboys playoff games. Or 49ers-Cowboys.

Both teams are built for the long haul with a franchise quarterback signed to a long-term deal, a solid running game and a top-10 defense.

The Seahawks have won the past two NFC championships. The Panthers are making their third straight playoff appearance, this time with an NFL-best 15-1 record.

Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. ET game at Bank of America Stadium will mark the second straight year these teams have met in the divisional round. Seattle won 31-17 at home last season.

Carolina rallied to win 27-23 at Seattle during the 2015 regular season. These teams already are scheduled to meet again during the regular season next year.

NFL Nation reporters David Newton (Panthers) and Sheil Kapadia (Seahawks) are here to break this one down:

Newton: Sheil, let’s get right to what many will debate this week. Should Russell Wilson be the league MVP over Cam Newton, who appears to be a lock for the award?

Kapadia: Are you trying to make me Public Enemy No. 1 in Charlotte? OK, I’ll take the bait. There is absolutely a case to be made that Wilson deserves the award over Newton. He’s been better in a number of areas: completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD/INT ratio and passer rating -- pretty much every major statistical passing category. Newton has 83 more rushing yards, but Wilson has a better rushing average.

And then there is the “valuable” argument. Both teams fielded great defenses, so that’s a wash. But Newton played with five fellow Pro Bowlers on offense. Wilson? Zero. The guy bounced back from the most devastating interception in Super Bowl history, persevered through injuries to Marshawn Lynch, Thomas Rawls and Jimmy Graham, and led the NFL in passer rating by throwing 24 touchdowns with one interception in the final seven games of the regular season.

Honestly, I’m completely fine with Newton winning it. Looking at the big picture, it has felt like “The Year of Cam.” But it’s far from a no-brainer. Go ahead, tell me why I’m wrong.

Newton: First, that would be “The Year of the Dab." Second, if I told you why you’re wrong then I’d become Public Enemy No. 1. Some people already think I’m a Cam-hater, even though I’ve been touting him as the MVP since midseason. But I can’t argue with your points. Statistically, other than Newton’s 10 rushing touchdowns to Wilson’s one, Wilson holds the advantage. Wilson has had a career season, just like Newton. What he did during the final seven regular-season games was phenomenal. But Newton was just as impressive during that stretch, throwing 20 touchdown passes with only one interception. He also ran for four touchdowns and had a 114.8 passer rating during that stretch. But when you look at the complete season, and that’s what we’re doing, Newton’s biggest edge is the 15-1 team record versus the Seahawks at 10-6, including a win at Seattle when these teams went head-to-head.

If Lynch can’t play this week, can Seattle be balanced enough to be effective against a Carolina defense ranked fourth against the run? Even if Lynch is back, will his conditioning be good enough for him to be effective?

Kapadia: I thought one of the keys to the first matchup in Week 6 was that the Panthers dominated up front against the Seahawks’ offensive line. If Lynch can’t go, it’ll be Christine Michael carrying the load once again. He ran 21 times for 70 yards in the wild-card win against the Vikings. So no, I don’t have a lot of confidence that the Seahawks will be able to run the ball effectively in this one. In the first game, they had some success with the read-option and might need to call on that quite a bit this time around, too.

As for Lynch, what I learned last week is that it’s probably a good idea to watch who gets on the bus when the team leaves for the airport Friday afternoon. Lynch had practiced fully all week, and the expectation was that he would play and be the starter. But before the team left for Minneapolis, he announced that he couldn’t go. Pete Carroll has said Lynch is in very good shape, but he hasn’t built up the necessary confidence yet. If he gets on the bus, I’d expect Lynch to be the primary ball-carrier. If he doesn’t, it’ll be Michael.

What about the Panthers’ health? How concerned are they about the injuries at cornerback?

Newton: Funny when you mentioned injuries you started at corner and not at running back, where Jonathan Stewart will return after missing the past month with a sprained foot. That will be huge. Like Lynch, Stewart has a “Beast Mode." He’s tough to bring down. Stewart's 78 yards rushing and two touchdowns kept Carolina in the Week 6 meeting before Newton's passing heated up in the fourth quarter. But I get what why you asked about the secondary. With Charles Tillman out with a torn ACL, the Panthers will turn to Robert McClain, who was watching games at home until early December. Carolina already brought Cortland Finnegan out of semi-retirement in late November to play nickel because Bene Benwikere suffered a season-ending fractured leg. But Finnegan has a ton of experience and played his best game in the regular-season finale. McClain had seven tackles and an interception after Tillman was injured late in the first half of the regular-season finale. And remember, there’s Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman on the other side. The Seahawks were so intimated by his cover ability that they didn’t throw at him in the first meeting.

But the key will be what happens up front. If the front four can pressure Wilson, get him out of his comfort zone and contain him (I know, that’s asking a lot), then the secondary doesn’t have to be spectacular.

So how significant was Carolina winning at Seattle in October? Or does that matter at all?

Kapadia: From the Seahawks’ perspective, I don’t think it was a big deal. They felt they outplayed the Panthers for three quarters before crumbling down the stretch. One thing about the Seahawks is that they never lack confidence. They could be 1-14 going into the regular-season finale and still would believe they’re the best team in the NFL. From the Panthers’ perspective, I’m guessing it gives them a nice boost knowing they can beat Seattle.

But if they’re going to knock off the Seahawks for the second time this season, what do you think the one thing is that has to go their way?

Newton: Simple: Turnovers. Seattle scored 14 points off turnovers against Carolina in last year’s playoff game. One was a 90-yard interception return by Kam Chancellor when the Panthers were driving to make it interesting. As I wrote that day, Wilson showed the consistency it takes to win big playoff games, and Newton did not. Going back to where we started, with which quarterback should be the MVP, Newton has shown that consistency this season. He’s been better than ever at protecting the ball and taking what defenses give him instead of forcing things. He also has tight end Greg Olsen, and the Seahawks have struggled to cover tight ends this season. Olsen tormented them with seven catches for 131 yards in Week 6, including the game-winning 26-yard touchdown catch in the final minute. The biggest thing for Carolina is it now has the capability of winning a high-scoring game against Seattle if it comes down to that. That wasn’t really the case the past two years.