Could Panthers' struggles to close games cost them against Cardinals?
2:17 | NFL
Could Panthers' struggles to close games cost them against Cardinals?
Sunday January 17th, 2016

CHARLOTTE — It's a bit like that old adage favored by baseball announcers when a batter flares a bloop in for a hit: “They’re all line drives in the books.”

The Panthers took down the two-time conference champion Seahawks on Sunday, 31–24, securing an NFC title trip. Sure, they had to hold on for dear life after racing out to a stunning 31-point lead in the first half. And, of course, they would have preferred to clear the bench during a blowout victory—“I’d love to throttle them 56–0,” Jared Allen laughed afterward. “That'd be great for every game.”

But the celebration wasn’t diminished much, if at all, by what went down during the final two quarters. Regardless of how it all happened, Carolina will host the NFC championship game next week.

“I wouldn’t call it ‘survive,’” Allen said. “It doesn’t matter when you score the points, right? Thirty-one points, that's a dominant performance by the offense. And I’d say for all but the third quarter, we dominated on defense. You think Seattle cares that they won [last weekend] on a missed kick?”

Carolina Panthers 31, Seattle Seahawks 24: Complete box score

Probably not. Just like the Seahawks would have had no complaints had they pulled off a comeback for the ages here Sunday.

For any other team, a 31–point deficit would have been the end. Not for the Seahawks, who have an almost unfathomable ability to rebound from difficult spots. The 1992 Bills still hold the record for biggest playoff rally—behind Frank Reich they stormed back from a 32-point deficit to knock off Houston. Had the Seahawks done the near-impossible Sunday, they would have nestled into postseason lore just a slight step behind that Buffalo team.

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Seattle sliced Carolina’s 31–0 halftime lead down to 17 points in the third quarter, thanks to a pair of Russell Wilson TD passes—one to Jermaine Kearse and another to Tyler Lockett. Another Wilson-to-Kearse connection made it 31–21 with 6:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Seahawks later pulled within seven on a Steven Hauschka field goal.

But that proved to be the end. Following the late field goal, Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis secured an onside kick despite being flipped to the turf by Seattle fullback Derrick Coleman, and Cam Newton took a knee thrice to run out the clock.

“If we had another two minutes in that game,” said Seattle tight end Luke Willson, “I think we're playing overtime.”

At one point, this game looked like it was headed toward a potential all-time blowout—go back and check out those Twitter discussions wondering how early Carolina backup QB Derek Anderson would get to play the role of human victory cigar. Instead, it wound up being just another dramatic chapter in what already has been a fascinating couple of weeks for the NFL.

“Well, this is playoffs,” Carolina defensive back Tre Boston said. “No team is going to fold in the playoffs. We knew how they were going to come out in the second half, we knew how they were going to try to attack us.”

The Panthers put on an absolute clinic early. By the time each team had run its first play from scrimmage, the tone had been set in emphatic fashion. Carolina opened the game with a 59-yard run between the tackles by Jonathan Stewart, which led to a four-yard TD run from Stewart moments later. Seattle then lost three yards on its first play, as Star Lotulelei blew up a Marshawn Lynch run in the backfield.

On Seattle’s next snap, Kawann Short came through clean and Wilson fluttered a pass right into the arms of Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, who took it back for six.

“It was great,” Kuechly said of his team‘s furious start. “Anytime you are up 14–0, it's awesome. The offense really set the tone and we were able to match that.”

• ​WATCH: Luke Kuechly’ pick-six puts Panthers up by two TDs early

Carolina wound up scoring on its first four possessions. Stewart cashed in again in the second quarter, capping a nearly nine-minute drive on which Newton hit all four of his passes for 60 yards. After Graham Gano made it 24-zip, Newton delivered a 19-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Greg Olsen—the pass sailed right over the head of Seattle cornerback Jeremy Lane.

Wilson’s offense actually found its stride late in the second quarter, putting together a four-minute, 66-yard drive. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, they needed that 67th yard to keep the possession alive—Carolina defensive backs Roman Harper and Robert McClain stood up receiver Doug Baldwin just shy of the sticks on fourth down.

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Seattle had a second chance at points just prior to halftime, only to cough it away with some shoddy clock management (a running theme in this year’s playoffs) and a missed 55-yard field goal by Hauschka. Had that kick gone, or Pete Carroll opted for three points on the prior possession, Seattle could have been in position for the tie late even without an onside kick. The whole sequence hardly seemed like it would matter at the time.

“I just know they came out faster than we did,” Seattle LB Bruce Irvin said. “They just made the plays when they were presented to them. Hats off to them ... they were the better team today.”

Call ’em zombies, call ’em vampires, call Carroll the Night King after the Game of Thrones character who can revive the dead simply by raising his arms. Both teams knew it wouldn't be a casual walk to the finish, even with Carolina enjoying a massive halftime lead.

“We’ve been in this situation before,” Seattle WR Jermaine Kearse said. “Maybe not 31–0, but we’ve been in this situation where we’re backed into a corner. I thought this team would respond the way it [did], and it just kept fighting.”

Said Allen: “You don’t want to give up 24 points in the second half. It will be a good lesson, though. We'll learn from it: You’ve got to finish. You've got to keep them down, especially in the playoffs, especially a Super Bowl team.”

• ​WATCH: Greg Olsen makes impressive diving touchdown catch

Still carrying a chip on their shoulders despite a 15–1 record and the NFC’s top seed, the Panthers played about as perfect a first half as is physically possible. They wrecked the Seattle offensive line, negating Wilson’s athleticism and rendering Marshawn Lynch moot in what likely was his final game as a Seahawk.

Offensively, the Seahawks had no answer for Stewart or Newton, or really anything. Even Richard Sherman was left flailing on multiple occasions—he lost Greg Olsen (either by miscommunication or personal mistake), leading to a 27-yard completion; he was turned inside out by Corey Brown for a 17-yard reception near the sideline.

Whatever the Panthers wanted to do over the game’s first 20 minutes, they did. It was enough to sustain them when the road turned far rockier.

“I think we got the nickname Cardiac Cats,” Boston said. “It might be a little old, but you've got to be entertained. Are you not entertained?”

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