The Seattle Seahawks did just what they were expected to do, starting their quest for a Super Bowl repeat off in style with a 31-17 win over the Carolina Panthers.
After both sides played to a 13-9 Seahawks win earlier this season that resembled an old-school smashmouth style of game, big plays came much more often in Saturday night's rematch. They often went the way of the defending champions, who used a 17-point fourth quarter to pull away in another tough-nosed performance.
Russell Wilson dealt it out, throwing for 268 yards and three touchdowns on just 15-for-22 passing. Running back Marshawn Lynch posted 59 yards on the ground, most of which came in the second half to overcome Cam Newton's 246 passing yards.
With the win, Seattle moves on to host the winner of Dallas vs. Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, as Bleacher Report noted:
Here's the final box score, quarter by quarter:
For those who didn't catch the first meeting between Carolina and Seattle this season, folks tuning in Saturday got a repeat performance during the early stretches. Five of the first six possessions for either team ended in punts, with the lone exception being a Newton interception.
The Panthers got away with the first giveaway, but a second Carolina turnover—this one a fumble on a botched handoff between Newton and Jonathan Stewart—quickly led to Seattle's first points. Wilson found Doug Baldwin on the fourth play of the drive for a 16-yard touchdown just seconds before the second quarter.
Carolina made it apparent on the very next drive that Seattle wouldn't be pulling away early. The Panthers drove down the field, with Newton connecting with Kelvin Benjamin on a seven-yard slant route for a touchdown to tie it at seven.
The Panthers' Twitter caught footage of the play:
If the Panthers weren't interested in another defensive slugfest, neither were the Seahawks. Wilson got the ball back and found Jermaine Kearse open down the field.
The rest is history. Kearse reached out, snared the ball with one hand and disconnected from the defensive back to take it 63 yards for the score. It was really hard to tell which was better, the throw or the catch, as NFL noted:
As if the play wasn't big enough for the game itself, it also set a Seattle playoff record, as Aaron Levine of Fox Sports noted:
Seattle's offense was rolling with under five minutes to go before the half, but the defense just couldn't keep finding an answer for the Panthers offense when it got the ball. Carolina moved down the field on another grind-it-out drive, moving into the Seattle red zone as the first half wound down.
The Panthers' late effort to add points nearly backfired when Earl Thomas snagged an interception, but the pick was overturned after the review showed the ball hit the ground. That left Carolina to try a field goal before the half, which also nearly failed due to Kam Chancellor's sheer athleticism.
The Seahawks safety leaped over the line twice, and second time he ran into Panthers kicker Graham Gano. That allowed for a third try that made it 14-10 Seattle entering the break. Bleacher Report posted video:
The third quarter came and went without much action, as the Seahawks and Panthers traded long possessions that failed to produce points. Seattle wound down the third frame with a long, 12-play drive that ended just inside the Carolina red zone with a Steven Hauschka 37-yard field goal to make it 17-10.
Carolina's first chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter proved to be its final chance. The Panthers went three-and-out following Hauschka's field goal, and a typical Seattle trashing ensued.
With favorable field position near midfield, Wilson found tight end Luke Willson for a pair of big catches down the middle. The first went for 29 yards and moved the Seahawks into position, and the second was a 25-yard touchdown strike to put Seattle up 24-10.
The Panthers didn't look intent on giving up, driving down the field and into the Seattle red zone. Then, Chancellor put the game away for good, stepping in front of a Newton slant pass and taking it 90 yards for the pick-six.
Chancellor is used to making big postseason interceptions but not taking them to the house, as ESPN Stats and Information noted:
Nearly six minutes remained on the clock when Carolina got the ball back, but it sported a 31-10 deficit, which was more than insurmountable against the Seahawks on a rocking CenturyLink Field. The Panthers went 83 yards on eight plays and Newton found Benjamin for another touchdown, but it was too little, too late.
The Panthers booted it away to Seattle hoping to burn their timeouts and get the ball back, but the Seahawks walked their way into Carolina territory and bled the clock to secure the win.
As the final seconds ticked off and the players met at midfield, one of the more improbable playoff runs in recent memory came to a close. The Panthers were a lowly 3-8-1 at one point this season but rattled off five straight wins to get to Seattle.
Carolina's players shouldn't hang their heads. The Panthers gave Seattle everything it could handle for most of Saturday night, but doing so for 60 minutes has proven impossible for anyone over the last two months.
Say what you will about the NFC South, but as long as the Panthers defense continues its upward trend and Newton finds some more help offensively, Carolina will have its chances in the near future.
As for Seattle, it broke an insane trend among Super Bowl champions in the last decade, as John Boyle of the Everett Herald uncovered:
Was there ever really much of a doubt that these Seahawks would bring that streak to an end? Even amid Carolina doing everything it was supposed to do against Seattle, the Seahawks seemed in control from the onset and put away the opposition when they got the chance.
Up next for Seattle is another 60-minute audition, this time for a spot in the Super Bowl. Whether the Cowboys or Packers come out victorious in Sunday's game, the winner will be heading to CenturyLink Field.
Whichever team comes out of that will have its work cut out to end what looks to be another magical Super Bowl run for the Seattle Seahawks.