The real Super Bowl is this Sunday

2015 10 18 Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, NFL

Marshawn Lynch gained 54 yards against Carolina in a 27-23 loss Oct. 18 at the Clink.

Perhaps in the confusion this week about NFL relocation to Los Angeles, you may have missed news of another relocation. Super Bowl Bowl 50 has been moved. To Charlotte. Sunday, 10 a.m. PT (FOX).

The match doesn't have the hype, glitter, tassels and stripper poles that typically identify the Super Bowl. But the Panthers and Seahawks are the two best teams in the field, and they play Sunday, not Feb. 7 in Santa Clara. Right?

It's the NFL's marquee matchup this season. The 15-1 challengers against the two-time NFC heavyweight champions. Everything else? Lounge acts. Kenan Thompson warming up the crowd for Chris Rock.

“That’s how I look at it,” said Seahawks tight end Luke Willson, “as far as the way we finished off the season, and the way their entire season went.

“It’s certainly a heavyweight match-up.”

No other teams in the NFC, not even Arizona, are of the same pedigree. Should the Seahawks and Cardinals, who host Green Bay Saturday, prevail this weekend, they will meet in the NFC Championship.

But the Seahawks beat the Cards 36-6 on Jan. 3. The luster will be off; it won't be the same as Carolina, which beat the Seahawks 27-23 Oct. 18 upon the sacred rug of the Clink.

The AFC usually has a case with New England that every postseason game is a Super Bowl equivalent. But the defending champs, damaged by injuries, have lost four of their previous six games. Even coach Bill Belichick had a black eye this week. The rest of the AFC field has more question marks than exclamation points.

Carolina and Seattle are the best teams. That's it. Move the Super Bowl's hyperventilated halftime show across the country, and let's get it on.

The edge for this game was set with Carolina's win over Seattle. It looked to some then to be the final blow to the teensy dynasty begun by the Seahawks under coach Pete Carroll. Nice run -- his eight postseason wins are one more than the franchise accumulated in its history before his arrival -- but at 2-4 this fall, the Seahawks season looked cooked.

Especially after Panthers quarterback Cam Newton directed four scoring drives of 80 or more yards, including two in the fourth quarter. You know, the-king-is-dead-long-live-the-king medieval succession model.

“They had some great plays," said defensive end Michael Bennett, attempting to explain what happened that day. "That’s a 15-1 team. They’ve got great players.”

Bennett begs to differ about whether there has been a change in NFC leadership, however.

"You can never count anybody out in the NFL, especially at mid-season," he said. "We learned from our mistakes. We’re not the same team we were."

“I think we're one of those teams that develop,” he said. “We keep going on and on."

Bennett is right about Seattle's single-season evolution.

Coach Pete Carroll admitted recently that getting over the devastating loss in the Super Bowl took a long time. Equally vexing was the inexplicable contract holdout of strong safety Kam Chancellor, who missed the first two games. Because of injuries, safety Earl Thomas missed the entire preseason.  And Bobby Wagner, who joins Carolina's Luke Kuechly as the game's best middle linebackers, missed the Panthers game with injury.

Those travails explain much of why the Seahawks defense in the early season gave up 34 points to the Rams, and 27 each to the Packers, Bengals and Panthers.

Because those matters are resolved, and Jeremy Lane has returned to health to fix the weakest defensive position, the cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman, the current outfit is not the same as the group that blew a 24-13 fourth-quarter lead.

"Those guys are critical pieces to who we are," said defensive coordinator Kris Richard Thursday. "It's the relationships, the camaraderie, the experiences and what they've been taught over the years -- you lose a little of that each time they're not out there.

"Sure (their absences) made a difference. Now that we're all here, it matters nothing."

Well, it did matter for playoff seeding. The Seahawks' 2-4 start cost them a shot at the division championship, meaning no home postseason games and no bye, big advantages they had the two previous seasons. So they have to win three road games in a row to reach the Super Bowl, after winning just two road playoff games in the 39 previous years of the franchise's existence.

But after barely surviving the most frigid game in the history of Minnesota, where cold was invented, the Seahawks see a trip to North Carolina and think about taking golf clubs (forecast: 47 degrees, 20 percent chance of rain). That, plus the fact that they have won six road games in a row, as well as the past three games they've played in Charlotte, suggests that they are not intimidated by surroundings or circumstances.

The Seahawks go from frigid to formidable: The foe is a 15-1 team that topped the NFL in turnover ratio and is led by the NFL's Most Valuable Player-presumptive in Newton.

"It’s what America wants to see," Bennett said. "They want to see two teams go out and heavyweight-fight it -- Mike Tyson, (Evander) Holyfield.”

There you have it -- the real Super Bowl. Throw in the forecasted return from hibernation of Seattle's Beast, Marshawn Lynch, and the NFL can put up the "Closed" sign on Levi's Stadium in three weeks.


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