The Carolina Panthers season continues on to the NFC Championship Game after beating the Seattle Seahawks 31-24. It was a tale of two halves as the Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 lead at halftime but saw the Seahawks score 24 straight points and cut it to a one score game with a little over a minute left.
The Panthers, coming off a bye, looked well rested and jumped out a quick 14-point lead in the first four minutes. This game was the first game back for running back Jonathan Stewart, who missed the last three regular season games with a foot injury, and on the first play of the game broke a career long 59-yard run. The Panthers ran two more running plays before giving the ball back to Stewart, who crossed the goal line for the first score of the game.
It was the defense's turn as Luke Kuechly intercepted Russell Wilson on the second play of the game and returned it for a touchdown. The defense did an excellent job over the first two quarters of disrupting the Seahawks as Wilson only had 116 passing yards and 10 completions in the first half. The Panthers did an excellent job in the first half getting pressure on Wilson, specifically Kawann Short who hit Wilson on his first interception and then got a sack on their second drive. The Panthers finished the game with five sacks, which tied a franchise playoff record.
The second half was a different story as the Seahawks made a furious comeback that included 24 straight points, 14 of which came in the first three minutes of the half. The Seahawks found a hole in this defense, which was the secondary, and Wilson started to pick them apart. Wilson looked sharp and threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns in the final 30 minutes of this game.
This was a concern for the Panthers as they lost two of their top three cornerbacks in the final month of the regular season with Bene Benwikere suffering a broken leg and then Charles Tillman suffering a torn ACL in the final regular season game. They turned to Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan who were both out of the NFL the last time these two team's played each other.
The defense wasn't the only part of this Panthers' team that struggled as the offense couldn't sustain drives and saw all four of their drives end with punts. The longest drive they had in the second half was only 32 yards. In the first half, the team leaned on Stewart who had 85 rushing yards and two touchdowns. However, he struggled to find running lanes and only had 21 rushing yards on eight carries in the final two quarters.
One of the reasons Stewart may have struggled was the fact that Cam Newton was not able to push the ball down field and hit that explosive passing play. He completed 16 of 22 passes but only threw for 161 passing yards, an average of 7.3 yards per attempt. This was the first game back for Ted Ginn Jr. but he failed to have an impact with zero catches and only one target. Newton leaned heavily on Greg Olsen who had six receptions for 77 yards including an acrobatic touchdown catch in the second quarter.
The Carolina Panthers with the win now advance to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 2005 and will be hosting the game for the first time in franchise history. They will be taking on the Arizona Cardinals, after they won 26-20 over the Green Bay Packers.