Ultimately, it was more about the quarterbacks than anything else.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson thoroughly outplayed Carolina’s Cam Newton on Saturday night, and it was no coincidence that Seattle beat Carolina 31-17 in an NFL divisional playoff game.
Wilson had three touchdown passes, 268 passing yards and, most importantly, zero turnovers. “Impeccable,” gushed Seattle coach Pete Carroll.
Newton had a few fine moments, too. But his three turnovers – two interceptions, one fumble on a botched handoff – were killers in a game that Carolina was going to need to play almost perfectly to win.
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The loss left the Panthers and their fans with an empty feeling for the first time in six weeks.
“I’m very proud of this team,” coach Ron Rivera said outside Carolina’s locker room, and he should be. Once left for dead at 3-8-1, Carolina won four straight games to make the playoffs and then got a fifth win in the postseason to earn a trip to Seattle.
But the Seahawks are far better than any of those five teams Carolina beat were. Seattle may well win its second straight Super Bowl title in three weeks.
“They did the types of things that lead to winning championships,” Rivera said of Seattle.
The Panthers didn’t do enough of those things, although their fans can take some solace in the fact it wasn’t a rout. Although Carolina never led, the Panthers trailed only 14-10 entering the fourth quarter.
But then came a quick Seattle field goal, and then Wilson hit on his third TD pass to make it 24-10, and then Newton threw a ball way too late that Seattle’s Kam Chancellor intercepted and ran back 90 yards for a touchdown.
All of a sudden CenturyLink Field was shaking and quaking and the Panthers were done. Too many mistakes had again undone them.
Make no mistake, I’m not blaming only Newton for this loss. He doesn’t have enough fast wide receivers. He doesn’t have a reliable left tackle. The Panthers’ special teams never give him a short field.
Defensively, Carolina started well Saturday but then had major problems. Wilson burned the Panthers almost every time they blitzed. Rookies Tre Boston and Bené Benwikere, who were both such a big part of Carolina’s win streak when inserted as starters, each gave up a long TD pass.
The biggest problem was that Seattle had better players. That was the bottom line. And nowhere was that more apparent than at quarterback.
The Panthers have to make a $100 million decision at some point on Newton and whether they want to give him a significant contract extension (Newton is locked into playing for Carolina for 2015, but not beyond that).
This game showcased both sides of whether or not to make that offer. Newton threw for 246 yards and two TDs, ran for 37 yards and generally was Carolina’s best offensive threat.
But Newton’s three turnovers were either poor decisions, poor throws or both. He was badly outplayed by Wilson, the former N.C. State star who was drafted two rounds later and is half a foot shorter but hardly ever makes the big error.
Rivera said he would look back at this season “with a little humor and a little pride.” Carolina’s bizarre year included Newton’s car accident, Rivera’s house fire and both a winning and a losing streak that stretch more than a month.
Finally, it all came to a halt against Seattle – the team everyone in the NFC is trying to figure out how to beat.
Carolina will visit the Seahawks again in the 2015 regular season and get another dose of the NFL’s loudest crowd. But Panthers fans should hope the team comes more prepared for that battle – with a handful of difference-making players who aren’t on the roster now but must be acquired.
As for Newton, he will undoubtedly still be Carolina’s quarterback in 2015. And if he is ever going to beat Wilson and Seattle with the Panthers, he will have to be a lot better.