NFL Picks: Grab the Points at +7 on Panthers vs. Seahawks Week 6

Sterling Xie

Sunday, October 18, 2015 2:24 PM UTC

Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015 2:24 PM UTC

Mainstream perception can be slow to change at the beginning of the season, and this week's matchup between the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks is an embodiment of that trend.

Granted, there's likely regression to the mean coming for both squads.  Carolina's four opponents have a combined record of 5-16, and no one is quite ready to write off the two-time defending NFC champs at home.  Seattle's defense has allowed just three points in two games this season—Detroit's lone touchdown two weeks ago came off of a fumble return—and has generally clamped down since Kam Chancellor ended his holdout to start the regular season.

Nevertheless, Seattle has some very real long-term issues, and the name value of this franchise may have compelled the betting public to push this line too far.  The Seahawks' problems start offensively, where the passing game has regressed severely behind an unprecedented amount of pressure.  Russell Wilson is currently on pace to take 70 sacks, a total which has only been reached once in NFL history, when the expansion 2002 Houston Texans scarred rookie David Carr by conceding 76 sacks. 

Wilson has always been one to extend plays and welcome pressure, but in past years, he's been able to punish defenses late in the down with his improvisational skills and stellar deep ball accuracy.  During his first three seasons in the league, Wilson hit 61 passes of 30 or more yards, the sixth-highest total over that span.  Conversely, in 2015, Wilson has hit only six such passes, putting him on par with noted checkdown artists such as Nick Foles and Sam Bradford.  Part of this certainly stems from Seattle's puzzling usage of Jimmy Graham, who is on pace for his lowest receiving totals across the board since his rookie season in 2010.  As I wrote on Football Outsiders earlier this week, Graham is essentially only a relevant target in the red zone at the moment, as he's been targeted just 20 times from beyond the opponent's 30-yard line.  Watching Seattle's offense, it is clear that Graham is not only playing too many snaps as an in-line blocking tight end, but that he is rarely the primary target when he does release out into a route.

This all bodes well for Carolina, which can at least cover this spread by controlling time of possession.  The Panthers are currently the only team that runs more than they pass, with a league-high 50.6 percent rushing play percentage.  Carolina was a ground-bound offense last year as well, but Cam Newton has been propping up that run percentage by taking off more than ever.  Newton has scrambled an average of 117 times per season over the first four years of his career, never exceeding 127 rushing attempts in a single season.  However, with a heavily diminished receiving corps, Newton is on pace to shatter that 172 rushing attempts in 2015.  Against a Seattle defense conceding just 5.8 yards per pass attempt over the past three weeks, expect the Panthers to limit the number of possessions by relying on the legs of Newton, Jonathan Stewart and Cameron Artis-Payne.

That low variance strategy should cap Seattle's ceiling, but one only needs to look at recent history to figure that this game will likely remain a one-possession contest for much of the afternoon.  Three of four meetings between the two squads since 2012 have been decided by five or fewer points, with neither side scoring more than 16 points in those meetings.  Seattle did run away from the Panthers in last season's divisional round meeting at CenturyLink Field, 31-17, and the Seahawks have managed to pull out all four meetings.

Nevertheless, that game has been the aberration between these two stylistically similar squads, and unlike in past seasons, the Seahawks don't appear to have the significant advantage in the secondary.  Behind Josh Norman's ascent into a true shutdown cornerback, Carolina ranks fourth against the pass Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, whereas Seattle only ranks 17th.  FO's metrics also adjust for opponent strength, so while the Panthers have played an easier schedule, they've also performed at a higher standard when removing strength of schedule from consideration. 

Even with Marshawn Lynch returning to the lineup, it's not difficult to imagine a Carolina front seven (which will see Luke Kuechly return to the lineup this week) containing Seattle's running game and forcing Wilson into long down-and-distance situations.  In past seasons, the Panthers have fallen short in this matchup due to their inability to make enough plays through the air against the Legion of Boom.  This season, though, the Seahawks might find themselves in those very shoes, giving Carolina an excellent opportunity to cover the spread and perhaps even win outright for the first time against the Wilson-led Hawks.

NFL Picks: Panthers +7 (-115) at 5Dimes

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