For the Carolina Panthers, what a time to be alive.
Sunday’s 31-24 victory over of the Seattle Seahawks that played out as a preservation of a 31-point first half lead.
Carolina, the NFC’s top seed advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time in franchise history (1996, 2003 and 2005 were the others). The Panthers will host it for the first time, meeting the second-seeded Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium at 6:40 p.m. on Sunday. The winner advances to Super Bowl 50 at Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7.
“It’s great, it’s what you strive for and what you work for, and it’s been part of our vision,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of advancing to the NFC title game for the first time in his tenure. “Now comes the next one, Arizona. That is a complete team that will play us well.”
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The Panthers harrassed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson into two first-half interceptions, including one linebacker Luke Kuechly returned for a touchdown that gave them a 14-0 lead after 3 minutes 22 seconds.
Stewart’s diving touchdown with 14:18 to play in the second quarter made it 21-0, and after Cortland Finnegan’s interception when Wilson was hit as he released a pass, the Panthers got a 48-yard field goal from Graham Gano for a 24-0 lead.
Greg Olsen’s 14-yard touchdown catch on a laser from Cam Newton made it 31-0 Carolina and tied a Panthers record for
Ultimately, Seattle couldn’t recover, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Wilson threw three second-half touchdown passes and led the Seahawks to a late field goal, cutting Carolina’s lead to 31-24.
But Thomas Davis recovered Seattle’s onside kick, preserving the Carolina victory.
“We’ve got to be able to sustain that for four quarters, or at least three-and-a-half, and that didn’t happen,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “And we didn’t.”
Those are issues for another day. The Panthers are headed to the NFC Championship Game.
Three who mattered
Jonathan Stewart: There’s a reason fresh legs in January as viewed as a huge advantage. Stewart, who had missed four weeks, had a gain of 59 on the game’s first play (behind nice blocks by Trai Turner and Mike Tolbert) and a touchdown run three plays later. He finished with 106 yards rushing on 19 carries and two touchdowns. Welcome back.
Thomas Davis: He was quiet most of the day, but his recovery of Seattle’s onside kick sealed the victory.
Russell Wilson: As long as he’s the Seattle quarterback, it will be hard to close out the Seahawks. Wilson passed for three second-half touchdowns, cutting the big Carolina lead to 10 with 6:04 to play. The Panthers made Seattle one-dimensional (31 passes vs. four runs in the second half), but Wilson made that irrelevant – and maybe even advantageous.
▪ The Seahawks went to no-huddle with more than six minutes to play in the second quarter – and seldom came out of it the rest of the game.
▪ Olsen’s touchdown catch – and the pass from Newton that produced it – were both things of beauty.
▪ A third-quarter fake punt kept a drive alive for Seattle, and raised lots of pressbox questions about why the Panthers weren’t looking for it under the circumstances. It didn’t matter as the Panthers forced another punt four plays later – and guarded against a fake the second time.
▪ The Panthers led the Colts 23-6 before eventually winning in overtime on Nov. 2 and 27-7 before allowing a Packers rally in a 37-29 victory six days later.
▪ The Panthers tied their franchise record for points in the first half at 31. They have done it three times – twice this season.
▪ Carolina safety Roman Harper had an outstanding tackle on a fourth-down play deep in Carolina territory late in the first half, forcing Seattle to turn the ball over on downs. It seemed insignificant at the time, but how big was it in retrospect.
▪ The Seahawks haven’t rallied for a victory from a deficit larger than 21 points in their franchise history.
▪ Newton finished 16 of 11 for 161 yards and a touchdown, with a passer rating of 108.3. Olsen had six catches for 77 yards.
▪ There were 74,287 tickets distributed for the game.
They said it
“We won the football game, that’s the bottom line. I think if we could have skipped halftime we would have been better off.” – Ron Rivera
“For whatever reason, we got into protect mode.” – Rivera
“You’d much rather them just keep going. We had some opportunities to keep drives going in the third quarter and we missed them.” – Rivera