Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers speed to lead, sweat to finish and edge Seattle 31-24

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A first half that was magic.

A second half that was misery.

And, finally, a result that was monumental: Carolina 31, Seattle 24.

The Panthers advanced to the NFC Championship Game next Sunday at 6:40 p.m. and ensured it will be played in Charlotte for the first time by slaying the dragon that has ruled the NFC for the past two years.

The playoff win came so easy at first – Carolina started the game with a 59-yard run from Jonathan Stewart on the first play from scrimmage and quickly followed that with an interception return for a touchdown by Luke Kuechly. The Panthers had leaped to an improbable 31-0 lead by halftime.

And then suddenly it became very, very difficult. Seattle showed its own championship mettle with 24 straight second-half points and, if it had recovered an onside kick with 1:12 left, would have had a chance to score the game-tying touchdown and force the Panthers into overtime.

But linebacker Thomas Davis – tabbed “Charlotte’s sweetheart” after the game by quarterback Cam Newton – jumped high to grab the onside kick, got submarined by a Seattle player and held on.

And as Davis held on, so did the Panthers, earning the right to host Arizona on Sunday in the NFC Championship game in Charlotte. Tickets are already sold out.

The winner of that Carolina-Arizona game will play the winner of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game – New England at Denver – in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7.

Ever since Carolina’s first home playoff win against Dallas in the 1996 postseason, Panthers players have gone out for a postgame victory lap after wins. During Sunday’s victory lap, both players and fans looked equally relieved and exhausted.

We all should have known, given the way the Seattle-Carolina rivalry has gone for the past few years, that the Seahawks would not go quietly.

Carolina’s remarkable 31-point flurry to open the game was nearly matched by Russell Wilson and company in the second half. The mood in the stands went from “Oh, this is awesome” to “Uh-oh, this is awful.”

In the first half, Panthers fans were dabbing in the stands. In the second, they began dabbing sweat off their foreheads.

As Newton put it about the way he and his teammates felt as the Seahawks worked their way back into the game: “There were a lot of guys playing with their butts tight. Coaches with their butts tight. At one point, the fans and myself with butts tight, too, but you just have to find ways to get your groove back.”

The Panthers never really got their groove back in the second half, but time was on Carolina’s side.

“Our philosophy at times was just to play keepaway,” Newton said of the second half.

The conservatism worked, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as Carolina’s first 30 minutes. Before Newton had thrown a single pass, Carolina was already up 14-0. Two short TDs by Stewart sandwiched Kuechly’s 14-yard interception return for a TD. Graham Gano’s 48-yard field goal made it 24-0.

“You couldn’t have drawn it up any better,” said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who would make an extraordinary catch of a 19-yard dart from Newton with 6:26 left in the second quarter, when the score ballooned to 31-0.

“We made a mess of it in the first half,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.

Panthers fans were going nuts, waving their freebie white towels in exultation. Several times, the press box where I was sitting literally rocked back and forth. A day that had started with snow flurries throughout the Carolinas had turned sunny and felt warm, even though it was 45 degrees.

But Seattle is Seattle, and Carolina has had a difficult time holding a big lead all year (see Green Bay, see Indianapolis, see New York Giants – OK, I’ll stop now).

Said Wilson, who once starred for N.C. State: “They are up 31-0, we had no doubts in our minds that we could win the game. … If we could have one more drive.”

But there was no “one more drive.” Davis made sure of that.

Many Seattle players changed cleats before the game because of the soft turf at Bank of America, much of which has been resodded since the Dec. 30 Belk Bowl was played in a quagmire. Carroll said he thought the onside kick from Seattle’s Steven Hauschka did not bounce as high as it normally would have if the turf had been harder.

“The ground is so soft, it is such a soft field, it just didn’t elevate,” Carroll said. “Thomas Davis made a great play on the ball.”

With that great play, Panthers fans could heave a sigh of relief and gear up for the first NFC title game ever played in Charlotte. Arizona, with a bevy of explosive offensive playmakers, beat Green Bay Saturday night in overtime.

Said Newton to fans: “Whatever you guys did today, do it again times 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. … They say to get something that you never got, you have to do something you’ve never done. For us, we’ve never had that vibe in the streets of Charlotte, and I expect nothing less than what we saw today.”

What’s next

NFC Championship

Who: Carolina Panthers vs. Arizona Cardinals

When: 6:40 p.m. Sunday (Fox)

Where: Bank of America Stadium

Want to go? Tickets went on sale at 7 p.m. Sunday and sold out in 3 minutes

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