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Originally published September 4, 2013 at 5:24 PM | Page modified September 5, 2013 at 9:24 PM

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Carolina Panthers are a hard team to figure

The Seahawks open against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. Will the Panthers look more like the team that started the season 2-8 a year ago, or the team that won five of its last six games?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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As the NFL season begins, no one really knows what to make of the Carolina Panthers, Sunday’s opponent for the Seahawks.

Sports Illustrated, in its season preview, rated Carolina last of all 16 NFC teams.

Football Outsiders, meanwhile, wrote that the Panthers are the team that could be the “dark horse that we expect will rise from a losing record to a Super Bowl contender.”

Fitting, then, that if the Panthers are one of the biggest enigmas in the NFL, they are led by one of its largest riddles, third-year quarterback Cam Newton.

The former Heisman Trophy winner has put up huge numbers — his 7,920 yards are the most for any quarterback in NFL history in his first two seasons — yet is generally considered to have been a disappointment so far with Carolina going 13-19 during his starts.

Newton, though, also led Carolina to wins in five of its last six games last season, allowing the team to turn a 2-8 disaster into a 7-9 final record that has spurred optimism in Charlotte.

“I know they have a lot of energy about them,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday. “They feel really good about where they are going.”

One of the reasons for Carolina’s strong finish last season was that it returned to a power running game, in the process simplifying the playbook for Newton.

Asked about that Wednesday during a conference call with Seattle reporters, Carolina receiver Steve Smith had rather strong words for Rob Chudzinszki, who was the team’s offensive coordinator last season before becoming head coach of the Browns.

“I think it was really a power move of the prior offensive coordinator really positioning himself to kind of show: ‘Hey! I’m capable,’" Smith said. “I really believe that he was applying for that head-coaching job. Our offense kind of suffered a little bit because of that. At times we got cute and we did things that weren’t necessarily us.”

Carolina has had trouble winning close games the past two seasons, which some peg on third-year coach Ron Rivera. Carolina has lost 15 times in that span in games it has had a lead, and is 6-13 in contests decided by eight points or less.

One of those come-from-ahead defeats came in Week Five last season when the Seahawks eked out a 16-12 win in Charlotte. The victory was clinched when Newton bounced a pass at the feet of an open receiver in the end zone on fourth down from the 1-yard-line one. It was a play that seemed to encapsulate everything that ailed the Panthers — an iffy play call followed by worse execution.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton was just 12 of 29 for 141 yards and the Seahawks held Carolina’s usually potent running game to 82 yards on 19 attempts.

While each team has changed somewhat in the offseason, for the most part the defensive recipe for Seattle is the same — shut down the run, both by the running backs and by Newton, and make Newton throw the ball.

While seeming to take a back seat in the discussion of mobile young quarterbacks, Newton’s 741 rushing yards last season led the Panthers and was second among quarterbacks to the 815 of Robert Griffin III. Much of that yardage came out of the read zone offense that is becoming increasingly popular throughout the league.

Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, recalling what worked well for the Seahawks’ defense last year, made it clear Wednesday they’d rather see Newton in the pocket throwing than taking off and running around the edge.

“I don’t think we let Cam run on us like that,’’ Wagner said. “We let him throw the ball and try to beat us throwing, which I don’t think he can do.’’

Rivera says opponents who think they know what they are getting in Newton might see a different player this year.

“He started slow obviously last season,’’ Rivera said. “But once he got to about Week Eight, he really played just about as well as anyone else in the league. … I think, and I’d like to believe, that he’s matured and he’s gotten the things that he needs to have as far as getting us going.’’

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @bcondotta

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