The Carolina Panthers weren't at all intimidated by the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's NFC Divisional Round game at Bank of America Stadium, fending off a furious comeback bid to notch a 31-24 victory at home.
The Seahawks' reign at the top of the NFC is over ☔️ pic.twitter.com/UiRFV0pDKk— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 17, 2016
From the first play of scrimmage, it was clear Carolina was going to take the fight to its physical adversary who had played in the prior two Super Bowls.
NFL Network's Brian Billick summarized how the start went for head coach Pete Carroll's overwhelmed team:
Running back Jonathan Stewart ripped off a 59-yard run and capped a quick opening drive with a four-yard burst into the end zone to get the hosts on the board.
Then, stud linebacker Luke Kuechly made the most of an errant pass thrown by an unusually flustered Russell Wilson, taking an interception to the house for a 14-0 Panthers lead just 3:22 into the game.
The vaunted Seattle defense couldn't prevent Carolina from scoring at will its next time on the field, allowing a 15-play, 86-yard march that culminated in a rare deficit for the Seahawks, per the NFL on ESPN:
Last time the Seahawks were behind by at least 21 points? Week 9 against the Buccaneers in 2013.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 17, 2016
And the nightmare wasn't over for the visitors thereafter, as Wilson was hit as he threw, resulting in another pick, which led to a 48-yard field goal by Graham Gano. Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung left the game on the play, per John Boyle of the Seahawks' official website, adding to the adversity Seattle faced.
Kurt Warner of NFL Network has been through the playoffs and emphasized a factor some may have overlooked amid the Panthers' dominant stretch:
What a half - complete domination!!!! I love having the bye - we often forget the huge benefits of a week in waiting, Panthers reminding us!— Kurt Warner (@kurt13warner) January 17, 2016
Stewart was certainly fresh and found paydirt again from one yard out on the second scoring drive, thriving in his return from injury. ESPN's Ed Werder highlighted the significance of Stewart's 19-carry, 106-yard performance:
His counterpart, Marshawn Lynch, was a non-factor in the beginning, as Seattle struggled to block the Panthers' relentless defensive front.
This allowed Carolina to pin its ears back and pressure Wilson incessantly. In the meantime, the Panthers kept rolling. Quarterback Cam Newton rifled a 19-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-14 to favorite tight end target Greg Olsen to make the score 31-0 with 6:26 to go before halftime.
Jason McIntyre of the Big Lead said what many were thinking while watching such a lopsided contest:
One of the most shocking beatdowns I've seen in a playoff game in years. 31-0 in the first half? Biggest rout shocker since ... ?— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) January 17, 2016
Max Henson of the Panthers' official website assessed the damage Carolina inflicted on its outmatched foe at the merciful intermission, which was preceded by a missed 55-yard Steven Hauschka field goal:
The collective level of execution from the Panthers in that first half is unfathomable, really. 31-0 against the 2-time NFC champs? Amazing.— Max Henson (@PanthersMax) January 17, 2016
NBA superstar Stephen Curry wrote off any possibility of his team allowing an epic comeback to take place:
That's how you play football fellas. Gotta finish it and keep the momentum for next week pic.twitter.com/Z2MQ5JQ5qa— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) January 17, 2016
But rookie Tyler Lockett gave Seattle some hope coming out of the locker room, catalyzing a 93-second sequence outlined by Bryan Strickland of the Panthers' official website:
Big kickoff return and penalty tacked on sets up Seattle to cover 35 yds for its first score. Nice catch by Kearse from 13 yards out. 31-7.— Bryan Strickland (@PanthersBryan) January 17, 2016
Lockett struck again as a receiver on a 3rd-and-10, 33-yard TD toss from Wilson after the QB had missed a wide-open Doug Baldwin on the first play of the possession that ultimately cut the deficit to 31-14.
Yet again it was the first-year wunderkind who kept a drive alive with a toe-dragging catch on the sideline to set up a magical scramble by Wilson and an improbable second scoring pass of the day to receiver Jermaine Kearse, who leaped over Carolina All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman to secure the ball.
ESPN Stats & Info referred to how vital Kearse has been to Seattle's success in recent years:
Jermaine Kearse: 6th career postseason TD reception (most in Seahawks history)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 17, 2016
Even at that point, it was going to take a perfect set of circumstances for Seattle to pull out an implausible win, though, and not enough went right for the Seahawks to dig out of their early hole.
Linebacker Thomas Davis went airborne to make a grab on a last-ditch onside-kick attempt to secure Carolina's triumph.
Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports captured the sentiment many had to feel toward the Seahawks:
Win or lose, Seahawks earn respect. Took 15 haymakers, kept coming. Rocky stuff right here.— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) January 17, 2016
The Panthers converted eight of 15 third downs to thwart Seattle's rally, with Newton converting most of them with his arm. He had a much cleaner pocket to work with and ample time to find open receivers, wearing down the Seahawks defense as they met their postseason demise.
Fifteen of the Panthers' 16 prior opponents weren't able to best them, so perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising Carolina was ready when it mattered most.
What is a bit jarring is just how dominant the Panthers were for a half in a matchup that should've been quite even between two teams who run the ball well and play elite defense. They were so superior that their lackadaisical effort in the second half didn't cost them.
The Seahawks still have a magnificent core of players in place and simply came out flat for the first 30 minutes of Sunday's contest. They endured a lot of turmoil earlier this season and peaked at the right time heading into the playoffs, but they just weren't the best team Sunday.
Next up for Carolina is a battle against another NFC West opponent in the Arizona Cardinals. The two top NFC seeds from the regular season have earned the opportunity to square off for a Super Bowl 50 berth on Feb. 7, which is monumental for two franchises that have never hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera commented on how his side got a bit too conservative to close out Sunday's contest.
"For whatever reason we got into protect mode, which I was disappointed with," said Rivera, per Henson. Rivera added, "We have to be able to sustain for four quarters. We can't relax, we have to continue to attack."
He also applauded the home crowd's support, saying, "Very excited and proud of what we've accomplished. This is great for this organization. Fans were fabulous."
“Man, it was like a bend, but don’t break," Newton said of Seattle's comeback attempt, per the Associated Press (via the New York Daily News). "It was really excruciating to watch. It was a tale of two halves and we’ve got to be better than that.”
“We were conservative, but at the end of the day, you have to trust coaching,” Newton said.
"There were lots of players with their butts tight," Newton, per Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports. "Coaches with their butts tight. Fans with their butts tight. But we kept playing."
Linebacker A.J. Klein tweeted the Panthers' mantra and hinted at the greater aspirations his team has in its sights:
Wilson vowed the Seahawks would grow from Sunday's experience:
Grateful for the opportunity. We will be back. #GoHawks— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) January 17, 2016
Per the Seahawks' official Twitter account, Carroll's assessment of the loss was most appropriate.
"This was a microcosm of our season. We started slow and then came on strong in the second half," said Carroll.
Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin was frustrated afterward, saying, "Why do you think we play the game? Super Bowl is the only goal. If you're not in it to win it then why play?"
But Baldwin also essentially echoed Wilson in alluding to the silver lining, adding, "We'll become stronger because of this."