Seattle is definitely the better team. 11-5 last year, and some of the best elements were rookies.
So, there's room for growth.
Russell Wilson - somehow, a guy who NC State fans openly root for, despite him transferring out - remained as efficient as he was in Wisconsin,
He threw in almost 500 yards and 4 TDs rushing, as the 'Hawks second leading rusher.
Marshawn Lynch remains potent, despite going into year 8 (he's oddly still 27). 1500 yards, 11 touchdowns, and he was the most elusive back in the league per profootballfocus.com (he broke almost as many tackles as Adrian Peterson on fewer carries). Lynch is a dangerous threat, and even in Carolina's best preseason defensive performance against Baltimore, they dropped a number of missed tackles. That was one of Carolina's largest weaknesses last year as well.
2nd year Robert Turpin is the backup, while not a bust he's not as impactful as the starters at 3 major spots above him; he's a big (5'10, 222) guy who doesn't show much for breaking one, but will get yards.
The 'Hawks' OL is, in some forms, a good counterpoint for the Carolina DL. Russell Okung is a top LT, a good match for Greg Hardy. RT Breno Giacomini, despite Charles Johnson beating him like a drum in 2010, has started to shape up, giving up four sacks all 2012. Pro Bowl C Max Unger fits in the middle to take on Star Lotulelei. LG James Carpenter, a first rounder (if also massive reach), looks to be healthy, but probably won't start over vet Paul McQuistan; neither he nor JR Sweezy are as good, so it might be better to throw in a fully even front or two that will put the Panthers' DTs on their guards more. The 3-4 sets, unless they learn something very specific from Seattle's interdivisional rival San Francisco, probably doesn't set up the same mismatches. Loeulelei should set a good base, but it'll be up to Dwan Edwards and rook Kawann Short to not let there be good cutback lanes inside.
Vet Zach Miller is the TE; since joining Seattle two seasons ago, Miller's stats declined. Wish I could say the same thing about big-ticket WR Sidney Rice, who broke out last year in the same span. In the Panthers' first stroke of luck, Percy Harvin is hurt, leaving Golden Tate as the starter again. Both Rice and Tate are somewhat explosive guys - 15 yard averages, 7 TDs each - but each also average 3 receptions a game with an efficient QB. Doug Baldwin is the outside guy when Harvin goes to the slot, where he's most potent.
To effectively beat the Seahawks, look for a lot of 8 in the box, with three deep behind it to catch the deep receivers. Seattle doesn't do a ton deep down the middle, and Wilson doesn't get a ton of attempts so he's more likely to go deep outside. Carolina did an OK job of making Wilson and Lynch one-dimensional (5 rushes for 12 yards; 85 yards respectively; it was Lynch's 3rd worst performance), despite Wilson completing 19 of 25 passes, there weren't big plays to be had.
The Seahawks defense is, not unlike the Ravens and Pats' defenses, hybrid. Not like Carolina's, that runs one or the other at different times; this is a team that plays tow philosophies at the same time. Pete Carroll, a defensive coordinator under George Seifert, runs what the 9ers ran in the 90s. It's a 4-3 Over scheme that allows an end to have a free shot at the QB (think of the '99 team here with Kevin Greene), while some of the DL runs a two-gap type scheme. Essentially, it's one of the few 4-3s that plays a NT (Brandon Mebane) two different ways - one gap or two gap at different times - and plays a left end that's massive to stop the run situationally (Red Bryant). It's an old scheme - a 4-3 that has minimal roots in what Jimmy Johnson does - that was a 3-4 scheme but adapted to the NFL at a time when the Johnson defense was the way to go. Bryant helps set the edge - but his presence is almost an ideal sign that the Seahawks are trying to stop the run. Bryant didn't record a single pressure last year.
DEs Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin (playing some LB, in theory) are out, for Carolina's second big break; Cliff Avril will play the role, and has the ability to get upfield fast. Bryant will give way to former Buc Michael Bennett, who broke out last year with 9 sacks and yet somehow has a backup role in Seattle even with two injuries.
Bobby Wagner gave Luke Kuechly a run for rookie of the year; the tackling machine isn't easily fooled. ILBs like Wilson and Kuechly are critical in the read-option era. It makes Carolina a little more likely to run straight up;Wagner, like most LBs, does get easier to deal with if you can get a big body on him, and outside of Mebane, there's not a lot that will require extra attention. KJ Wright and Malcolm Smith are unremarkable OLBs. Backup LB John Lotulelei is a cousin of the Panthers' Star.
On the back end, Richard Sherman is one of the best corners in the NFL; Brandon Browner doesn't give up much less in yards per snap himself. Here's where Carolina gets another break - Seattle really hasn't come up with a nickel with Antoine Winfield now retired. It's hard to say what will happen here; before last year, Carroll would throw in a 3rd safety a lot of the time. That might be a smart choice, honestly, since the Panthers' best matchup is Greg Olsen up the middle.
Cam Newton must be more efficient this game - his 12/25 last year wasn't enough, and his 4th and goal mis-step went a long way toward the Panthers dropping a close game. The Panthers' running game has to be stronger - even the pass might make sense with 2 TE with the Seahawks' offset scheme - Newton is stronger when he's running playaction than running himself, and this was another game where he was the only one over 20 yards. There might be value to spreading the Seahawks out in base defense (putting more pressure on guys like Bryant and the unimpressive OLBs in space).
Carolina, even with Seattle traveling across the country and shorter on starts than last year, has its work cut out in this opener. This is a tough draw to start the season, both the strongest defense and team overall it will face until week 10 - San Francisco. I don't love their chances.