CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers crafted a nearly perfect first half in their playoff opener here Sunday to follow their nearly perfect regular season.
Things were far from flawless for them from there, as they allowed the Seattle Seahawks to trim a 31-point halftime deficit to seven points. But the Panthers held on to end the Seahawks’ run of NFC supremacy and advance to next Sunday’s conference title game with a 31-24 triumph at Bank of America Stadium.
“A win’s a win,” Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “I don’t care how much we win by. If we win by one point, it’s a win and we’re moving on. But the thing you’ve got to realize is that game wasn’t what we need it to be.”
The Panthers, the NFC’s top seed after a 15-1 regular season, will host the second-seeded Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game here next Sunday.
The Seahawks made things interesting Sunday after trailing 31-0 at halftime. But they go home after being denied in their bid to make a third straight Super Bowl appearance.
“We just ran out of time,” Seattle wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said. “Our team fought all the way through. We tried to dig ourselves out of it. We never quit.”
Carolina raced to a 14-point lead after six plays from scrimmage, thanks to a touchdown run by tailback Jonathan Stewart and a touchdown on an interception return by Kuechly.
Stewart ran for another touchdown and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw another interception during the first-half onslaught. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw a touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen to make it 31-0 in the second quarter.
From there, is should have been merely a matter of figuring out what the final margin of victory would be. But Wilson threw a trio of second-half touchdown passes, two to Kearse and another to fellow wideout Tyler Lockett.
“It was just a tale of execution,” Newton said. “We needed a little bit more of that in the second half. It was like guys playing with their butts tight, coaches with their butts tight. Hell, at one point fans and myself was butt-tight too. But yet, you just have to find ways to get your groove back on. We need a little bit more of that next Sunday.”
The second Wilson-to-Kearse touchdown got the Seahawks to within 10 points with a little more than six minutes to play. A field goal by kicker Steven Hauschka narrowed Seattle’s deficit to 31-24 with 1 minute 12 seconds left. But the Panthers recovered an onside kick and managed to run out the clock.
“We’ve just got to find ways to complete a full game of football,” Newton said. “We’ve been known to kind of let that foot off the throttle. For us, we’ve just got to get that killer instinct. Yeah, we won the football game. But there’s things that we’ve got to go back and huddle up and be better with.”
The Seahawks also could wonder if things might have gone differently late in the game if they’d kicked a field goal in the second quarter instead of trying a failed fourth-down gamble. That might have left them trailing by seven points instead of by 10 before Hauschka’s late field goal, and given them a chance to take a fourth-down gamble then for a potential tie.
But for most of the day, it didn’t seem as if there would be any such could-have-beens to ponder afterward. The tone was set quickly. Stewart turned a simple play into a huge gain on the game’s first offensive play, dashing 59 yards with a handoff up the middle. The Panthers soon cashed in with Stewart’s four-yard touchdown.
On Seattle’s second offensive play, Wilson was pressured by Carolina defensive tackle Kawann Short and made an ill-advised throw. The pass went directly to Kuechly, who made the routine catch for the interception and raced 14 yards to the end zone.
“The game couldn’t have started any better for us,” Olsen said. “That’s how your draw it up. It would be nice if you could do it every week. But sometimes it’s a lot easier said than done.”
Carolina made it 21-0 in the opening minute of the second quarter after a long drive. The Panthers used 15 plays and took 8:44 off the clock to march 86 yards, ending with Stewart’s one-yard touchdown. Wilson, under pass-rush pressure by Panthers defensive end Mario Addison, threw a pass directly to cornerback Cortland Finnegan for another interception, leading to a field goal by Carolina kicker Graham Gano.
Panthers fans celebrated the 24-point lead with enough fervor to make the press box shake. Carolina got the ball back and upped the advantage to 31-0 on Newton’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Olsen, who made a superb leaping catch in the back of the end zone.
But the Carolina offense did next to nothing in the second half and the Panthers, as was their habit at times during the regular season, permitted a once-lopsided game to get uncomfortably close.
“Those positions you find yourself in are tough, finding that balance of staying aggressive and continuing your normal game plan,” Olsen said. “It sounds great. But you also don’t want to be the spark that gets them going. You don’t want to have turnovers. You don’t want to have a quick three and out with three passes and you hand the ball back in 10 seconds.”
It all worked out for the Panthers, though, and their players could take a victory lap around the field at game’s end. The NFC’s two best teams are left standing for a compelling matchup next weekend.
“Everybody is trying to make the most of Super Bowl, Super Bowl, Super Bowl,” Newton said. “Yeah, but the truth of the matter is, we’re not gonna have an opportunity if we don’t focus in and hone in on for this week. That’s what makes it the most important game we play.”