Carolina Panthers (13-5) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:30 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: Third meeting. Series tied 1-1. The Panthers lost to the Seahawks 23-17 at Qwest Field on Oct. 31, 2004. 2005 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 22nd (19th rush, 17th pass); defense 3rd (4th rush, 9th pass). Seahawks: offense 2nd (3rd rush, 13th pass); defense 17th (5th rush, 25th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Seahawks allowed just 59 rushing yards last weekend against the Washington Redskins in their divisional playoff win, and must get a similar effort out of their front seven against the Panthers. If RB Nick Goings is running the ball effectively, Seattle will have a difficult time committing a safety help over the top against WR Steve Smith. The Panthers will move Smith around in search of mismatches, and the key for the Seahawks' corners is to keep Smith in front of them. The Panthers want to avoid long passing downs in which Seattle's loud crowd becomes a factor.
Opponents committed a league-high 24 false starts at Qwest Field. RB Shaun Alexander will return for Seattle's offense, and the majority of his yards come behind the left side of the offensive line. The Panthers must swarm to the ball and close off the cutback lanes Alexander uses so effectively. But QB Matt Hasselbeck proved last Saturday he can lead an effective offense even without a ton of help from the running game. There will be a good matchup downfield between two deep and very solid groups in the Seahawks' receivers against the Panthers' corners.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: Seek NFL-record fifth consecutive postseason road victory. ... QB Jake Delhomme has a 108.4 passer rating in six career playoff games. Seahawks: This is the first time Seattle has played host to a conference championship game. It has never reached the Super Bowl. ... Hasselbeck is 21-4 in his past 25 home starts. ... Their 22-3 record at home since Week 16 of the 2002 season is the best in the NFL. ... Alexander has averaged just 2.3 yards per carry in three career playoff games.
--CB Ken Lucas told the Seattle media that he never felt totally appreciated by his former team, the Seahawks. "To be honest, no," Lucas said. "No, I didn't. I think they knew I was a good player but I just feel happy that I am here now. I feel like I am in a place where I am supposed to be. Like I said, I have no regrets about Seattle. I am glad they gave the opportunity to even play in the NFL and I thank them for that. I enjoy my teammates now (in Carolina) and I enjoy my family now, my adopted family. I have no regrets, no. I am just glad they gave me an opportunity."
--G Mike Wahle will be playing in his first NFC title game in his eight seasons in the NFL. "There's a lot of guys in this locker room who haven't won the whole thing before, me being one of them," Wahle said. "I know how rare these opportunities are and you really have to take advantage of them. Jordan Gross, on the other hand, he thinks it's a damn walk in the park. It's his second one in three years. He thinks there's nothing to it."
--DE Julius Peppers missed Wednesday and Thursday practices with a shoulder injury and the flu, but he did practice Friday. Teammates said they think he will play against Seattle.
--RB Jamal Robertson will backup Nick Goings at running back this week. Robertson has never carried the ball in the postseason.
--TE Michael Gaines could see more action on Sunday as the Panthers look to expose Seattle's young linebackers.
--QB Jake Delhomme is 4-0 in his career in road playoff games entering Sunday's game at Seattle. No other quarterback in NFL history has won four straight road games in the playoffs.
--WR Bobby Engram (back) practiced on Friday after missing Wednesday and Thursday practice. He remained questionable for Sunday.
--WR Darrell Jackson (knee) practiced on Friday after missing Wednesday and Thursday practice. He remained questionable for Sunday.
--DT Rocky Bernard (foot) practiced on Friday after missing Wednesday and Thursday practice. He remained questionable for Sunday.
--RB Shaun Alexander (concussion) practiced again Friday. He remained probable for Sunday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers racticed on Friday after missing Wednesday and Thursday practice. His teammates say he'll play in Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Seattle Seahawks.
"It's not a concern," said defensive end Mike Rucker. "Guys are going to get nicked up. You have to get in the treatment room and let your body rest and heal back. I know what type of guy he is. He has played with injuries before and I feel like he will be fine."
Added safety Mike Minter: "Oh, he'll be back."
Peppers stood on the sidelines watching practice in sweats on Thursday, but then left early.
Afterward, head coach John Fox said that along with a shoulder injury, Peppers is suffering from an illness, a victim of the flu bug that has made its way around the Panthers locker room in recent weeks. It has really hit Carolina's defensive line hard in recent weeks and defensive tackle Jordan Carstens is also getting over a similar bug.
Peppers was spotted leaving the stadium early Thursday afternoon with a bag full of Gatorade.
Minter said on Thursday that the fact that the time Peppers missed doesn't really matter at this point in the season.
"If you ain't got it by now, you ain't getting it," Minter said with a laugh. "You can afford at this point in time to miss a couple of practices. He's played enough. He isn't going to get rusty just from a few days off."
Fox said Peppers was held out of practice to rest his shoulder, not because of the illness.
He wouldn't speculate on whether or not he expects Peppers to play on Sunday. Peppers is still listed as questionable on the injury report.
Among the other injuries, defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead (ankle) practiced Friday, and was listed as probable.
The Panthers upgraded offensive linemen Jeff Mitchell (knee), guard Tutan Reyes (toe) and fullback Brad Hoover (ankle) from questionable to probable after they practiced on Thursday. Defensive tackle Jordan Carstens (illness) and safety Mike Minter also practiced and are listed as probable.
Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander practiced again Friday, leaving no doubt about his availability for the NFC title game Sunday. The concussion he suffered last week appears to be causing no problems.
"I'm feeling a lot better," Alexander said after practice. "Every day I get a little bit better and it's exciting."
The Seahawks could use a bounce-back game from the league MVP. Alexander carried only six times for 9 yards during a 20-10 victory over Washington in the divisional round, losing a fumble in the red zone.
"I knew pretty much by the end of the game that I was feeling a lot better," Alexander said. "The doctors were just amazed at how much I was feeling better even going through the game (Saturday). So I just felt it was probably going to happen."
Alexander said he wasn't worried about taking another shot to the head.
"It's just a fact of life that once you get one there is a chance that you will get another," he said. "At the same time, we play football - it's not ballet.
"The truth is the majority of the guys on every team have had concussions. It's just a part of the game. I think it's just because it was me in a situation like that where everybody got to see it that people talked about it more. Majority of us in the league are loopy."