The Carolina Panthers are 16-1 and averaging a league-best 31.2 points per game, but after the team nearly blew a 31-0 halftime lead in last Sunday’s divisional-round game against the Seattle Seahawks, head coach Ron Rivera admitted he’s concerned that getting into a similar situation again could cost Carolina its season.
With win-or-go-home stakes heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Arizona Cardinals—the contest Carolina's last test to make it to Super Bowl 50—Rivera acknowledged his worry of blowing big leads late, per Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer:
I’ll be honest, I get it, I understand. But shoot, we won those football games ... Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly. Let’s stay focused on what we did. We did some really good things. We made some things happen. And we won the football game.
Last Sunday’s game wasn’t the first contest the Panthers nearly let a wide lead slip away.
It happened against the Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants in the regular season. In each of those games, the Panthers led by as many as 17 points but won on the final drive. They also led twice during their lone loss to the Atlanta Falcons, albeit never by more than a touchdown.
|Week||Opponent||Biggest Lead (Points)||Final Score||Result|
|8||Indianapolis Colts||17||29-26 (OT)||Win|
|9||Green Bay Packers||20||37-29||Win|
|15||New York Giants||28||38-35||Win|
|NFC Divisional||Seattle Seahawks||31||31-24||Win|
Rivera added his concern is assuaged by the competition in those games. The Packers reached the divisional playoffs, and the Giants were in the hunt for the NFC East until Week 16. Meanwhile, the Colts weren’t eliminated until the final week, and the Falcons started the year 5-0 before a midseason fallout.
"If this was someone that was 2-14 that did this to us, then I’d be really concerned,” Rivera said. "But it wasn’t.”
Last Sunday, the Panthers jumped to a three-touchdown lead on the first play of the second quarter and appeared en route to a major blowout of the two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks.
But Seattle methodically crept its way back and did so without forcing a turnover.
Russell Wilson threw three touchdown passes, and Steven Hauschka added a 36-yard field goal to pull the Seahawks within a touchdown with one minute, 12 seconds remaining before Seattle failed to recover the ensuing onside kick.
We needed a little bit more of that in the second half. There were a lot of guys playing with [their] butts tight. Coaches with the butts tight. At one point fans and myself were butt tight too, but you just have to find ways to get your groove back going and we need a little bit more of that next Sunday.
Sunday will be the Panthers’ most pivotal test yet—and not simply because the stakes have a Super Bowl berth on the line.
The Arizona Cardinals are right behind them at 30.2 points per game and are arguably the most complete team in football. These teams are nearly dead even in scoring defense as well—the Panthers have allowed 19.3 points per game and the Cardinals 19.6—making it likely that neither team will pull away drastically.
The Cardinals’ largest deficit to overcome this season was 13 points against the Cleveland Browns in Week 8. They also overcame a seven-point margin two other times.
However, the Cardinals are coming off a divisional-round game against the Packers last Saturday in which they allowed a game-tying 41-yard Hail Mary from Rodgers as time expired.
Had it not been for an iconic performance by wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in overtime, the Cardinals could’ve had the biggest blown game of the season, regardless of how close the final score was.
So both teams enter Sunday’s NFC title game on the heels of wins that were closer than they probably should have been and might be considered lucky for holding on at a time of year when the margin from being a champion to having an early exit is thin.