CHARLOTTE — For a half, the Panthers treated the Seahawks like a sausage grinder treats a hunk of meat.
Jonathan Stewart ripped off a 59-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and scored on the fourth, Luke Kuechly returned a Russell Wilson interception for a touchdown on the sixth, and after 30 minutes of dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and cutting a wide swath through the Legion of Boom, the Panthers led 31-0.
Each and every one of their doubters was silenced.
Then the Seahawks seeped back into the game, using a mix of big plays, defensive stops and Wilson's weekly parcel of miracles to narrow the score all the way to 31-24. And something else seeped into Bank of America Stadium: doubt.
Doubt is the Panthers' greatest enemy. Not the doubt of the Cam Newton bashers who are waiting for some grizzled, playoff-tested foe to wipe that wide grin off his face. Those folks don't matter. Not the doubt of the skeptics who think the Panthers looked vulnerable down the stretch or that upcoming opponents, starting with the Cardinals, may be better suited to win the Super Bowl. The Cardinals didn't look so overwhelming themselves Saturday night.
The doubt that is a concern is self-doubt. The Panthers cannot afford to play like they doubt themselves. And that's the way they played in that second half.
"There's a lot of guys playing with their butts tight, coaches with their butts tight." Newton said (as only he can) of the team's latest second-half letdown, one that resembled late near-catastrophes against the Packers, Saints and Giants during the regular season. "At one point, the fans and myself, our butts were tight too."
Head coach Ron Rivera did not express the problem quite so colorfully.
"I didn't really want to play the game the way we did in the second half," he said. "I wanted to be more aggressive and just continue to try to attack. For whatever reason, we got into 'protect mode,' which I was a little disappointed in."
The Panthers are the best team in the NFL when they are in attack mode. Their offense stretches opponents vertically and horizontally, with options, screens, reverses and plays designed to isolate Greg Olsen in favorable matchups. The defense creates pressure, forces turnovers and makes third-down stops. While in attack mode, the Panthers made the Seahawks look ragged, confused and downright soft—on offense and on defense.
But two things happen when the Panthers go into "protect mode."
First, they grow so tentative that their weaknesses become apparent. Josh Norman is a great cornerback, but he's the Panthers' only healthy, good cornerback, so their secondary is exposed when the pass rush slows. When they ease back on the option fins and spoilers on offense, it becomes obvious Newton lacks a go-to wide receiver and hands off to a banged-up 28-year-old running back.
Second, the Panthers start to look like the team their doubters believe them to be, the one that lacks whatever gumption or maturity is necessary to seal off what should be a convincing victory against a good opponent. Newton can't find open receivers and takes sacks. Opposing receivers run unchecked through the secondary. The Panthers start to look overmatched and (the ultimate doubter's insult) overrated.
The Panthers recognize that it's a problem. "We just have to find ways to complete a full game of football," Newton said. "We've been known to let the foot off the throttle. We just have to get that killer instinct. Yeah, we won the football game, but there's some things we have to go back and huddle up and be better with."
It was a familiar refrain around the Panthers locker room Sunday: The win was good, but there was real reason for concern because it should have been so much better.
"We're moving on, but the thing we've got to realize is that game wasn't what we needed it to be," Kuechly said.
"It's human nature," safety Kurt Coleman said. "You take a big lead and you go into protection mode, instead of playing to your aggressive nature as if it was a tie game."
It must be noted that while the Packers, Saints, Giants and now the Seahawks all mounted scary comebacks against the Panthers this season, the Panthers won all of those games. When opponents fail to put up much of a second-half fight against the Panthers, as happened 12 other times this season, there's no story. We're talking about near-losses here, which are not the same as actual losses.
Furthermore, the Seahawks have spoiled many opponents' postseasons with their comeback magic, but the Panthers held on with the help of a defensive stop here, a first down to run the clock there and an onside kick recovery by veteran linebacker Thomas Davis at the very end. The pessimist's near-letdown is the optimist's evidence of resilience.
"The time was against those guys," Newton said. "We knew that. A lot of plays were eliminated. Our philosophy at times was to just play keep-away. We didn't have to take shots downfield, nor did we have to come up with a guru of a play call when, at the end of the day, the best thing we had going for us was time."
Keep-away worked, if just barely. And Rivera noted a similarity among the teams that threw fourth-quarter scares into the Panthers this season.
"You look at who all of those [games] came against, they came against very good quarterbacks that were able to do some things against us," Rivera said.
"When you get a big lead like that, one thing that you have to learn not to do is relax."
The problem for the Panthers right now is that all of the remaining quarterbacks are very good quarterbacks. The Cardinals, Patriots and Broncos don't have a "protect mode." They throw downfield with big leads, blitz Hail Mary passes and can erase seemingly commanding leads in seconds.
"These are all things that we are going to take a look at and get corrected," Rivera said.
Translation: He doesn't want the Panthers squatting on leads and potentially squandering them. And he will probably let everyone know it: defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, offensive coordinator Mike Shula, Newton, Kuechly, the 53rd man on the roster.
The only question is why no one got the message sooner, like when the Giants almost turned an easy Panthers victory into Odell Beckham Jr.'s personal carnival in Week 15.
The Panthers probably inspired almost as many doubters in the football world as they silenced Sunday. That's the nature of the later rounds of the playoffs. They are now being judged by the higher standard of the NFL's best of the best. The Panthers have earned the right to be compared with dynasties like the Patriots, and it doesn't matter if some skeptics don't think, despite all they accomplished this year, that they really belong. It matters a lot, however, if the team itself starts to wonder in the second halves of games if it really belongs and starts playing like everyone is over their heads.
Luckily, Newton appears to have eliminated all traces of the doubt that haunted him early in his career. He spent the Seahawks' late rally performing jumping jacks on the sideline to rally the crowd. He told jokes about wanting to play on the onside kick "hands" team because of his "organic hands" after the game. He sounded slightly skeptical about the team's "keep-away" strategy ("I'm not the play-caller," he said with a little bite in his voice) but 100 percent confident in himself and his teammates.
"As long as I would have the football," he said when asked if he worried about the Panthers' lead slipping away at the end, "I feel like we would have a chance."
Hard-line Panthers skeptics may hear that and think cocky Cam will soon get his comeuppance. But Cam's unwillingness to ever go into "protect mode" may be what silences the Panthers doubters once and for all this season.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.