LOS ANGELES: The Carolina Panthers withstood a furious second half comeback from the Seattle Seahawks on Monday to win 31-24 and set up a National Football Conference championship showdown against the Arizona Cardinals.
A devastating first-half points blitz saw Carolina race into a 31-0 lead with quarterback Cam Newton excelling as the Seahawks’ vaunted defense was run ragged in the NFL Divisional round playoff game in Charlotte.
The Seahawks, however, staged a superb second half rally with quarterback Russell Wilson throwing for three touchdowns and finishing with 366 yards.
Seattle ultimately fell short, and when Carolina safely recovered an onside kick with just over a minute remaining the contest was effectively over.
Newton later admitted the Panthers had faced nervous moments as Seattle dominated the scoring in the second half.
“It was excruciating to watch,” Newton said. “It was a tale of two halves. We’ve got to be better than that,” added the MVP favorite, who went 16-for-22 for 161 yards.
The top-seeded Panthers had scored on their very first possession with a four-play 75-yard drive that ended with Jonathan Stewart scoring his first touchdown with a four-yard run.
Carolina’s swarming defense ensured the Seahawks were on the back foot, and Marshawn Lynch’s first run of the afternoon ended with the Seattle running back battered backwards for a loss of three yards.
Moments later a panicked Wilson threw a 14-yard interception to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly who galloped over to help make it 14-0.
Carolina then piled forward with another long scoring drive, Stewart rushing for his second touchdown to help make it 21-0.
A field goal from Panthers kicker Graham Gano made it 24-0. Newton then hit Greg Olsen with a 19-yard pass to leave the Panthers in control at 31-0.
A wretched half for the Seahawks drew to a close with kicker Steven Hauschka missing a 55-yard field goal.
Yet Seattle’s hopes of staging a miraculous comeback flickered early in the second half when two quick touchdowns at the start of the third quarter reduced the deficit to 31-14.
A 50-yard return from Tyler Lockett, extended with a 15-yard penalty against Carolina, put Seattle deep into enemy territory with the first play of the second half.
Four plays later Wilson connected with Jermaine Kearse to get Seattle’s first points on the board.
Rookie Lockett then pulled off a remarkable diving catch from a 33-yard Wilson pass to score Seattle’s second touchdown for 31-14.
The Seahawks made it a 10-point game with six minutes left after Wilson scrambled superbly to pick out Kearse once more for Seattle’s third touchdown.
A Hauschka field goal with just over a minute remaining took Seattle back to within seven points but Carolina recovered Seattle’s attempted onside kick to hold on.
“When you start like that, it’s going to be tough,” Seahawks wide receiver Kearse said. “We ran out of time.”