Carolina Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery played three seasons in Pittsburgh, where Steelers coach Mike Tomlin taught him a valuable lesson:
Don’t apologize for winning.
So while there was much in the second half for the Panthers to feel bad about, Cotchery wasn’t about to dwell on those things after Carolina held on for a 31-24 victory over Seattle in Sunday’s divisional-round game at Bank of America Stadium.
“When (Tomlin) said that, it’s something that I really took to heart. Don’t come in here apologizing for the way that the game went – for the second half,” Cotchery said. “We won the game. Let’s move on to the next week, and let’s get ready to go.”
Survive and advance.
That’s the NCAA basketball tournament mentality, and it was the prevailing attitude in the home locker room after the Panthers (16-1) turned a 31-point halftime lead into a one-score game that wasn’t nailed down until linebacker Thomas Davis came down with Steven Hauschka’s onside kick with 1:11 remaining.
Davis, the Panthers’ longest-tenured player, has never played for Tomlin. But he wasn’t apologizing, either.
“We’re moving on. We won the game,” Davis said. “We’re not going to sit here and pout about them scoring some points.”
The Panthers roared to a 31-0 first-half lead with a flurry that included a pair of Jonathan Stewart touchdown runs, a Luke Kuechly pick-six of Russell Wilson, a Graham Gano field goal and an amazing throw-and-catch by Cam Newton and Greg Olsen for a score.
Carolina went into the tunnel with the sixth-largest halftime lead in NFL history … then immediately started giving it back.
“I think sometimes you get that (big) of a lead and you kind of take your foot off the pedal,” free safety Kurt Coleman said. “We went into halftime, we said we didn’t want to do it. It’s almost human nature. We’ve got to have the mentality that no matter what the score is, we have to keep the pedal to the metal.”
The Seahawks (11-7) scored touchdowns on their first two series of the third quarter, and Wilson tossed three second-half touchdowns as the two-time defending NFC champs made a game of it.
Seattle outgained the Panthers 280 to 75 in total yardage in the second half and was an onside kick away from having a chance to tie the game in the final minute.
“There were a lot of guys playing with their butts tight. Coaches with their butts tight,” Newton said. “At one point, the fans and myself with butts tight, too. But you have to find ways to get your groove back going, and we need a little bit more of that next Sunday.”
That there is a next Sunday for the Panthers is a testament to their fast start against Seattle and a couple of key plays in the second half that didn’t result in touchdowns but took valuable time off the clock.
Olsen was responsible for several of them.
The Panthers were shut out in the second half, but none of their possessions were three-and-outs.
Olsen converted a pair of third downs by the skinniest of margins.
On third-and-7 on the Panthers’ first second-half series, Olsen caught a short pass from Newton and reached for the first-down marker.
On third-and-6 in the fourth quarter, Olsen picked up 6 yards despite taking a big hit from safety Kam Chancellor that briefly knocked Olsen out of the game with a shoulder stinger.
He returned the following series to grab an 8-yard pass from Newton on second-and-7.
Tick, tick, tick.
“When you have a lead like that, first downs are critical. First downs are the most vital part of the game at that point, because you want that clock to run,” Olsen said. “You want the chains to keep moving. You want to stay on the field. It just furthers your chances of getting enough to win the game.
“The next step on top of that is you’ve got to score. Even field goals. Just continue to push the lead and make them play catch-up even (more).”
This wasn’t the first time the Panthers let a big lead slip away. They had second-half let-ups against Indianapolis (surrendering a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead), Green Bay and the Giants, who came back from 28 points to tie the game in Week 15.
But in all of those games, including Sunday’s, the Panthers held on for the victory.
“A few years ago,” Davis said, “we found ways to lose these types of games.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says his team has to stop relaxing with a big lead and keep driving.
The Panthers hope they’re in the position of handling prosperity next week against Arizona.
“These are all things we’re going to take a look at and get corrected,” Rivera said. “We’re going to play the same type of defense next week against Arizona, so we need to make sure we’re good.”