Panthers hold off late rally by Seahawks to advance

nfl-tolbertrunThe Carolina Panthers’ utter domination of the two-time NFC champion Seattle Seahawks was, just imagine how the electricity enveloping Bank of America Stadium would have turned to shock had the home team lost after forging a 31-point lead.

The Seahawks showed signs of authoring a comeback of epic proportions in the rivals’ NFC Divisional Playoffs showdown, but the Panthers’ better half was good enough for a 31-24 victory. As a result, Carolina will host an NFC Championship for the first time in franchise history next Sunday when the Arizona Cardinals pay a visit to Charlotte.

The Seahawks are notorious for making rousing comebacks come playoff time, but they’ve never been knocked back in the playoffs like Carolina did Sunday. Around the middle of the second quarter, the Panthers had already piled up a playoff franchise record 31 points while allowing the Seahawks 17 yards on their first four possessions.

The tone was set on the very first offensive snap of the game, when running back Jonathan Stewart – back from a three-game absence with a foot injury – slashed through the middle of Seattle’s vaunted defense for 59 yards. Three plays later, he scored from 4 yards.

Not to be outdone, the defense needed just two snaps to score. After defensive tackle Star Lotulelei threw running back Marshawn Lynch for a 3-yard loss on Seattle’s first play (Lynch finished with just 20 yards), fellow tackle Kawann Short’s pressure of Wilson forced a bad pass for Lynch that Kuechly picked off and returned 14 yards for a 14-0 lead.

The rout was on. The rest of the quarter was dedicated to an 86-yard touchdown drive that consumed nearly nine minutes – capped by a Stewart leaping score from the 1. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan picked off a pass on Seattle’s next snap to set up a field goal, and soon after tight end Greg Olsen made an incredible grab in the back of the end zone on third-and-14 from the 19.

Out of halftime, however, the Seahawks found a way to turn the tide. The momentum shift began when Seahawks speedster Tyler Lockett returned the opening kickoff of the second half to midfield, and a penalty moved the ball to the 35. Not to say that such a shift was entirely inevitable, but sometimes against a team of Seattle’s ilk it seems unavoidable.

Steven Hauschka’s 36-yard field goal with 1:12 to go did pull the Seahawks within a single score, but when linebacker Thomas Davis skied high to secure a very good onside kick, the Seahawks never got the chance they doggedly pursued throughout the second half.

Coastal Carolina University products and All-Pros Mike Tolbert and Josh Norman had big hands in the win. Norman made four tackles and posted his first sack of the season. Tolbert had 17 yards on seven carries but had a huge game of blocking for Newton and the ground game.

Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers

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