The Carolina Panthers came out with a chip on their shoulders and built a 31-0 halftime lead. But Seattle wouldn’t go away and the Panthers were able to hold on and beat the Seahawks 31-24. The Panthers will advance to the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time and first since 2005.
The Panthers have won 12 straight home games. Carolina (16-1) will host Arizona (14-3) next week for a trip to the Super Bowl. The teams are meeting for the first time since the Panthers beat the Cardinals 27-16 in a 2014 wild-card game.
The Panthers began the game on offense as the Seahawks won the toss and elected to defer. The Panthers went four rushing plays on their first drive, capped by a touchdown from Jonathan Stewart to take the early lead. With 12 minutes left in the first quarter, the Panthers led the Seahawks, 7-0.
Russell Wilson made a terrible pass on the Seahawks first drive, and it was intercepted by Luke Keuchly. He was able to return it 14 yards for a Panthers’ touchdown. Suddenly, it was 14-0. It was all Panthers, at the end of the first quarter.
Jonathan Stewart, returning from a foot injury, scored two touchdowns after jump-starting the Panthers with a 59-yard sprint on their first play. Cam Newton threw for a touchdown, as Carolina built a 31-0 lead.
But Seattle wasn’t going to back down. They entered the battle with championship pedigree and the numbers to back it. Per ESPN, they finished the 2015 regular season as the No. 2 overall defense and the No. 1 scoring defensive unit. They were able to shut down the Panthers, in the second half.
The Seahawks got two touchdowns in the first 7:20 of the third quarter. Finally with time to throw, Russell Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse for a 13-yard score and rookie Tyler Lockett for 33 yards, making it 31-14. It was becoming a game and the full house at Bank of America Stadium was getting nervous.
Kearse cut the Panthers’ lead to 10 when he caught a 3-yard touchdown pass with 6:04 remaining in the game. Steven Hauschka added a 36-yard field goal with 1:12 left.
An onside kick with 1:11 remaining was covered by All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis — and the Panthers could begin breathing again. The Panthers were moving on to the next round.
Cam Newton finished the day 16-of-21 for 161 yards and one TD. Those numbers helped him finish with a lofty quarterback rating of 108.3. Newton’s low passing yardage was complimented by a balanced rushing attack. Stewart gained 106 yards on 19 carries.
The Seahawks were attempting to become only the third team in history to advance to three straight Super Bowls. But that bid was quieted by the Panthers in the first half. With two weeks to prepare for the game, the Panthers looked fresh and ready for battle. Seattle looked dazed and confused. Their play in the first half looked nothing like a team fighting for its playoff life.
At one point in the first half, the Panthers held a 223-17 edge in yards, with nine first downs to one for the Seahawks. If the Panthers wanted to send a message to the Cardinals about next week, they did a good job.
The Panthers did what they had to, in order to move on. Head coach Ron Rivera wasn’t pleased with the performance but was content with the outcome.
“We are on to the next round,” Rivera said, with relief. “We didn’t play as well as I thought we needed to, in the second half. We did things that we were supposed to do and won the football game. That’s the bottom line.”
Rivera mentioned he was proud of what the Panthers did in the first half. To win the NFC Championship game, Carolina will need to have a complete game against Arizona.
[Feature Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images]