Ryan Kang/Associated Press
Newton-Wilson VI pits the NFL's best team in 2015 against the defending two-time NFC champs and one of the hardest teams to beat in the playoffs in NFL history.
Why are you looking at that last sentence funny? Is it the Roman numerals? Do you think it's too early for Roman numerals?
It's not too early for Roman numerals.
This is the sixth meeting between Newton and Wilson. It's the second playoff meeting. Newton is 26 years old; Wilson is 27. Neither will be going anywhere for many years. When Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were those ages, they had only met four times and just once in the playoffs.
Newton-Wilson is the next Brady-Manning. Get on board now.
Newton is the Manning of the rivalry: former first pick overall, odds-on MVP candidate, famous in football circles since high school, soon-to-be pitchman for everything, the guy much of the nation loves to find reasons to hate. Wilson is the Brady, the gritty underdog who is more about wins than personal glory—the proven winner and gutsy leader who earned his way to the top.
Wilson is also 4-1 in Newton-Wilson Bowls (it's not too soon, darn it!), including last year's divisional playoff, which cements his Brady-ness in the Brady-Manning comparison. By extension, and taking into account Sunday's Houdini performance against the Vikings, it's easy to conclude that the Seahawks will beat the Panthers by virtue of quarterback playoff magic sauce.
There's only one problem: The Panthers are better than the Seahawks. They proved it the last time the teams met, winning 27-23 in Week 6.
The Seahawks had everything going for them in that game. They were at home. The 12th Man contributed to three Panthers false starts in the first half. Marshawn Lynch was in Beast Mode, not Limbo Mode. Jimmy Graham was healthy and making a real contribution: eight catches for 140 yards, including a 45-yarder on a patented Wilson miracle scramble. The Seahawks threw the whole playbook at the Panthers, including a Wilson-Lynch-Ricardo Lockette flea-flicker touchdown.
The Seahawks sacked Newton three times and pressured him consistently. They took the Panthers wide receivers completely out of the game. The Seahawks led 20-7 late in the third quarter.
Yet, the Panthers won because Newton led three 80-yard drives, manufactured out of short passes to the likes of Jerricho Cotchery, Ed Dickson and Philly Brown and punctuated by touchdowns by Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. The Panthers proved to be more versatile, resilient and capable of closing out a tight game than the Seahawks—and did it in Seattle.
This week, the Panthers will be at home, while the Seahawks will have played in three different time and temperate zones (none of them their own) in three weeks.
Newton-Wilson Bowls differ from Brady-Manning Bowls in many ways. The Panthers and Seahawks usually play defensive duels with final scores like 12-7 and 13-9; that 27-23 final in Week 6 was as explosive as things will ever get. Whereas Manning and Brady stand in the shotgun formation, bark orders and distribute short passes, Newton and Wilson mix pocket passes, designed runs, scrambles and ball fakes on option-flavored plays (plus some order-barking) to overcome each other's defenses.
Wilson is still the better pocket passer of the pair, as he demonstrated during the Seahawks' five-game winning streak. But Newton has grown as a pocket passer, decision-maker and ball distributor, to the point that he is better suited to beat the Seahawks than Wilson is to beat the Panthers.
Newton and the Panthers are unapologetic about pistol formations, fullback gives, reverses, inside quarterback runs and option meshes that last for two seconds and freeze the entire defense. The Seahawks have moved away from those tactics, but they may need them against the most disciplined defense they have faced outside of their own practice facility.
The Seahawks used to be the super-creative team with the nasty home-field advantage. The Panthers stole that mantle this season. And by taking hit after hit while fighting for extra yards and leading his share of no-nonsense comebacks this year, Newton has shown he has a little Brady-style leader grit under his fingernails, just as Wilson flashed some Manning-esque passing stats in the second half of the year.
Come to think of it, Newton-Wilson doesn't have the potential to be Brady-Manning. It has the potential to be better than Brady-Manning.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Seahawks 21