CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers coach Ron Rivera says the Seahawks are starting to feel a little like a division opponent.
The teams meet today for the sixth time in four years and for the second straight season in the NFC division round. Seattle has won four of the previous five including a 31-17 playoff victory last year at home.
But this time it's a little different.
Not only is today's game in Charlotte, where the top-seeded Panthers (15-1) have won 11 straight, but the Seahawks face a Carolina team that's more confident and battled-tested.
Some of that stems from Carolina's 27-23 win over the two-time defending NFC champions in Week 6 when Cam Newton hit tight end Greg Olsen for a 26-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left.
The Panthers say that win helped spark their 14-0 start.
"It was just a matter of getting over that hump," All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman said.
It led Panthers safety Roman Harper to declare: "We are the better team."
In many ways, the Seahawks and Panthers are mirror images.
They both have dynamic quarterbacks who can make plays with their arms and their feet; strong running games led by powerful, bruising backs; and defenses that excel at keeping the opposition out of the end zone.
But the most intriguing matchup might be Carolina's No. 1 scoring offense against Seattle's defense, which has allowed the fewest points in the league.
Newton is the first quarterback to throw for 35 touchdowns and run for 10 in a season.
"This is the most diversified offense that we see, and the dynamics of what Cam is able to do and the way that they're willing to run with him makes this a really difficult offense to prepare for," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
Seattle's offense, meanwhile, is getting a key piece back. Marshawn Lynch is expected to play for the first time since having abdominal surgery in November.
And Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart makes his return after missing the last three games with a foot injury.
On defense, the Panthers had 44 sacks, sixth in the league, but veteran defensive ends Charles Johnson and Jared Allen have combined for just three. Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner didn't play in the first meeting with Carolina and could be a major factor; he had 114 tackles this season.