The Carolina Panthers’ improbable late-season surge ended in the din of CenturyLink Field under the weight of three turnovers by their franchise quarterback.
Cam Newton turned in another poor performance against Seattle, losing a fumble and tossing two interceptions, including a pick-six as the reigning Super Bowl-champion Seahawks rolled to a 31-17 win Saturday before 68,524 fans, many of whom will wake up hoarse Sunday morning.
The Panthers (8-9-1), who closed the regular season with a four-game winning streak, had their improbable playoff run end. But not before they joined the 2010 Seahawks as the only teams to win their division – and a playoff game – after finishing with a losing regular-season record.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he was disappointed his team didn’t play better.
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“They came so far. They fought. They went through an awful lot. They endured an awful lot. They kept their heads up,” Rivera said. “They played together and they deserved to be here. I know a lot of people don’t agree with me, but that’s too bad.”
The Panthers became the first repeat champ in the NFC South and made the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in their history. But they haven’t made it past the divisional round in their past three postseason appearances.
Turnovers against the NFL’s top-ranked defense doomed the Panthers’ chances, especially Newton’s final takeaway.
With the Panthers still within striking distance, down 24-10 and driving, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor broke in front of a Newton pass for tight end Ed Dickson and raced 90 yards for the longest touchdown in Seattle’s postseason history.
Newton looked first to his left on the play, but first-year receiver Brenton Bersin fell down in his route. When Newton came back to Dickson on the right side, Chancellor read it all the way, jumped in front of Dickson and was gone.
“At that point we had a chance. We were still fighting,” Rivera said. “Who knows if we score a touchdown there, but instead it goes the other way.”
Dickson took responsibility for the interception, saying he could have been more aggressive going for the ball.
“I’m a big receiver, I could have worked back to the ball,” Dickson said. “I told Cam that, too. I said that’s what we build off. We’ll never be picked off on the backside of one of those again as long as I play with you.
“We were driving. We were going in. He jumped in front of the ball,” Dickson added. “You’ve got to take some risks right there, and he took a risk and jumped in front of the ball.”
Seattle (13-4) won its eighth consecutive home playoff game, dating to 2005. The Seahawks improved to 25-2 at home over the past three seasons, and will host the Green Bay-Dallas winner in the NFC title game next weekend.
The Panthers had dropped three consecutive regular-season games to Seattle by a total of 13 points. Newton had two of his worst passing games against the Seahawks in 2012 and 2013, and lost two turnovers in a Week 8 lost this season.
His passing numbers were better Saturday – 23 of 36 for 246 yards and two touchdowns – but the Seahawks converted two of his turnovers into 14 points.
“When you’re playing a great defense you have to take what they give. A lot of times I was kind of overlooking the play that needed to be made and instead trying to make the bigger play,” Newton said. “But when we started doing that, we started to move the ball.
“But at the end we felt desperate. But yet one thing we have to learn from this and moving forward, great teams build from this.”
Newton’s first interception – a pick by Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman on an underthrown pass to Philly Brown – didn’t hurt the Panthers.
But his fumble on a zone-read exchange with Jonathan Stewart gave the Seahawks a short field and led to a score.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson again outplayed Newton, completing 15 of 22 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Wilson was 8-for-8 passing on third down, and all three of his touchdowns came on third down.
The Panthers got caught in pressures on Wilson’s first two touchdowns, and the former N.C. State quarterback picked on the Panthers’ rookie defensive backs for the scores.
Wilson lofted a 16-yard pass to Doug Baldwin, who got behind safety Tre Boston with a double move to give the Seahawks a 7-0 lead in the final minute of the first quarter.
Newton answered by driving the Panthers 79 yards for a touchdown. He capped the 14-play drive, which took eight minutes, 12 seconds, by firing a 13-yard laser to rookie Kelvin Benjamin to tie the score at 7.
But Wilson again went after one of the Panthers’ rookies on the next drive, tossing a 63-yard score to Jermaine Kearse.
Kearse appeared to push off on cornerback Bené Benwikere, but no flag was thrown.
Benwikere said he wasn’t sure if a penalty should have been called.
Graham Gano made a 35-yard field goal – on his third try because of penalties – as the half ended.
Seattle ran only five plays in the second quarter, compared to 24 for Carolina.
The Seahawks controlled the ball in a scoreless third quarter, thanks to a 12-play scoring drive that took more than six minutes.
But they settled for a 37-yard Steven Hauschka field goal after Thomas Davis sacked Wilson for a 12-yard loss on the final play of the third quarter.
As Panthers players packed their bags and got ready for the cross-country flight home to Charlotte, veteran tight end Greg Olsen said it was too soon to put the down-and-up season in perspective.
“Obviously, right now we’re very disappointed,” Olsen said. “It’s hard to have a lot of moral victories. We’re not going to sit here and say, what a great (year). It was a crappy way to end the season, now two years a row in the divisional round. We’ve got to find a way to get over this hump.”