Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Panthers hold off surging Seahawks to reach NFC title game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four games into his playoff career, Cam Newton recognizes the key element to success. He calls it "Big Mo," and there couldn't have been a better example than Carolina's 31-24 victory Sunday over Seattle.

Emphatically backing up their superb regular season with one of the most dominating halves in football history, the Panthers then hung on in the face of a furious Seahawks rally.

"The playoffs bring out more than any other time the impact of 'Big Mo.' Momentum," Newton said after Carolina (16-1) reached the NFC title game, which they will host Sunday against Arizona (13-3). "We can't wait for no one to make plays for us."

The Panthers, winners of 12 straight at home, made all the right plays to build a 31-0 lead, then were dominated by the two-time defending NFC champs in the second half. So if Carolina wins its first NFL title, it can credit lessons learned from the Seahawks (11-7).

"We have to find a way to complete a full game of football," the All-Pro quarterback added. "We have been known to take our foot off the throttle, and we have to find that killer instinct."

Newton noted players, coaches and even fans felt pressure in the final 30 minutes as Seattle staged a relentless comeback: "It was a tale of execution. We needed a little more of that in the second half. You just have to find ways to get your groove back on."

"That's what this game is going to teach us," said All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, who returned a first-quarter interception for a score. "No matter how good you play in the first half, the second half is just as important."

Running back Jonathan Stewart, returning from a foot injury, scored two touchdowns after jump-starting the Panthers with a 59-yard sprint on their first play. Newton threw for a touchdown.

Then, Seattle showed its pedigree and rallied within seven.

"We made a mess of it in the first half," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Everyone in here just feels like we ran out of time."

"There wasn't a guy in the locker room (at halftime) who didn't think we were going to win the football game."

Seattle 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 and unnerving a full house at Bank of America Stadium.

Seattle got closer on Kearse's 3-yard catch of a jump ball against All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. With Newton waving the crowd into frenzied cheers on the sideline, the Panthers defense couldn't stop a 60-yard drive capped by Steven Hauschka's 36-yard field goal with 1:12 remaining.

At 31-24, All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis went about 3 feet in the air to catch Hauschka's high-bounce onside kick, was undercut by Seattle's Derrick Coleman, landed hard but held on to the ball — and Charlotte could breathe again.

"In the second half, we had to go for it," Wilson said. "We had to come out swinging. That was our mentality."

This will be the Panthers' fourth trip to the NFC Championship Game, and their first time as host.

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