The Carolina Panthers have the Halas Trophy, presented to them Sunday as the NFC champions.
Now they’ll go after the Lombardi Trophy, which goes to the Super Bowl champion.
Carolina beat the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 at Bank of America Stadium, and these Panthers joined the 2003 group as the second team in franchise history to advance to the Super Bowl.
In Santa Clara, Calif., the Panthers will face the Denver Broncos, 20-18 winners over New England in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 7.
Sunday’s crowd of 74,294 never had to break a sweat on a cold but dry evening.
The Panthers led 17-0 before the end of the first quarter. And unlike four times earlier this season, including in an NFC divisional round victory over Seattle a week earlier, Carolina never let Arizona back in.
A Cardinals touchdown and two-point conversion with 14 minutes 16 seconds left made it 34-15, but the Panthers drove 84 yards in nine plays for a touchdown pass to Devin Funchess that made it 40-15 with 5:26 to play.
A two-point conversion pass to Mike Tolbert made it 42-15.
Luke Kuechly returned Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer’s interception for a touchdown to make it 49-15. And it was over.
The Panthers never allowed Palmer to complete a pass over the top, although he took a number of shots. Palmer threw one touchdown pass, was intercepted four times and fumbled twice on strip sacks. His longest completion was 21 yards.
The game wasn’t totally without cost, however. Linebacker Thomas Davis injured his right forearm late in the first half and didn’t return. Safety Roman Harper also was out before halftime, with an injury to his right eye. Their status is unclear.
Three who mattered
Ted Ginn Jr.: Almost had a punt return for a touchdown. Did have a reverse for a touchdown. Chased Patrick Peterson down on an interception return after starting from the goal line. The man is fast.
Cam Newton: The Panthers QB and likely NFL MVP threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more, advancing to his first Super Bowl since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2011. He finished 19 of 28 for 335 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Kurt Coleman: He led the team in interceptions in the regular season and got two more on Sunday.
▪ Newton had all day after a great blitz pickup to find Philly Brown on an 86-yard touchdown, the longest in Panthers playoff history. The play gained more yards than Brown had in a game this season. He had 100 receiving yards after one quarter and finished with 113.
▪ Ginn’s slip on a first-quarter punt return might have cost him a touchdown you can bet he would have celebrated. He got to celebrate later in the same drive, though, when he scored on a 22-yard reverse that started left, then came across the field to the right and covered about 60 yards. It looked like a high school play where Ginn was clearly the fastest guy on the field. Except it was in the NFL.
▪ Arizona’s Patrick Peterson got greedy on a punt return, and the Panthers’ Teddy Williams recovered his muff with 4:45 to play in the first half. The resulting Newton 1-yard leap for a Carolina touchdown made it 24-7 on the first play after the two-minute warning.
▪ Peterson did have an interception of Newton that he returned 72 yards to the Carolina 22 in the final minute of the first half, but Coleman’s Josh Norman-like interception of Palmer on the next play made even that moot.
▪ There was precious little Arizona Cardinals red in the grandstands at Bank of America Stadium.
▪ A fan who fell out of the stands after Luke Kuechly’s pick-six was helped up ... by Luke Kuechly.
▪ Odds of a letter to the editor about the two-point conversion this week?
▪ An eye injury for Roman Harper came on friendly fire from Kuechly. Harper did not return.
▪ Davis’ injury came when Arizona tight end Darren Fells jumped into Davis’ attempted tackle. Davis went to the locker room, then came back out and had his wirst and forearm wrapped by trainers. He did not, however, return to the game.
▪ Ryan Kalil was announced as questionable to return with a left knee injury near the end of the first half but started the second.
▪ As expected, the Panthers deactivated rookie Cameron Artis-Payne with the return of Fozzy Whittaker from an ankle injury. Other Panthers inactives: Brenton Bersin, Lou Young, Dean Marlowe, Jared Allen and Kevin Norwood.
▪ Former Mallard Creek High offensive lineman D.J. Humphries was inactive for Arizona.
▪ The stadium was cleared of snow from the late-week storm thanks in part to an assist from Charlotte Motor Speedway, which sent men and equipment on Friday and Saturday.
▪ The Cardinals won the toss and chose to receive, then went three-and-out.
They said it
▪ “We did what a lot of people said we couldn’t do. It’s not over yet. It’s not over yet.” – Cam Newton.
▪ “I wouldn’t miss the Super Bowl for the world.” – Thomas Davis, on his status for two weeks from now.
▪ “I’ve had an opportunity to be a player, assistant coach and head coach in the Super Bowl,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera. ”