CHARLOTTE – As stunning as the 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 (6:40 p.m., FOX).
"A win is a win. I don't care how many points we win by – if we win by one point, it's a win, and you're moving on," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "It's the playoffs. It's the Seattle Seahawks. We knew they weren't going to go away. They're a great team with a lot of pride, and they've been in games where they've come back and won. They know this setting, know this playoff feel.
"They're a battling team, and that's what they did today. Fortunately we were able to make a couple of more plays."
Understandably, many of the questions posed to Kuechly and his teammates after the game centered on how Seattle managed to make a game of it down the stretch. But that shouldn't be the story of the game. The story was how the somehow-still-underrated-but-only-once-beaten Panthers put Seattle in position to play a long-odds game of catchup.
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.
"We felt like we were unstoppable," defensive end Mario Addison said. "The first half, I looked at Russell Wilson's face, and he was like, 'Damn.'"
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.
"We talked about starting fast. Of course you say that every game, but as a group we had been waiting awhile to play," said center Ryan Kalil, whose Panthers enjoyed a bye last week while Seattle survived in brutally cold conditions in Minnesota. "We were excited and fired up, and we wanted to set the tone for the game. And having Jonathan Stewart back was huge for our offense."
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.
"We popped them in the mouth and went up on them fast," safety Tre Boston said. "When you have momentum like that, it's hard to do anything about it. They tried to keep their heads up, but when you keep pounding, they could only take it so long."
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.
"31-0? Against that team?" Olsen said. "That's obviously pretty good. We felt pretty good about the way we played."
Out of halftime, however, the Seahawks found a way to turn the tide.
"As much as it's contagious when you do good things, it's just as contagious if not more when things go bad," quarterback Cam Newton said. "The playoffs bring out more than any other time the impact of 'big mo' – momentum."
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.
"I really didn't want to play the game the way we did in the second half," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I wanted to be more aggressive and try to attack, but for whatever reason we got into protect mode."
Added safety Kurt Coleman: "It's human nature. You get a big lead, and you take your foot off the pedal."
The Panthers intended to stay aggressive, but it's easier said than done. It's also not always best to be aggressive in such a situation.
"Staying aggressive and just continuing your normal game plan sounds great, but you also don't want to be the spark that gets them going," Olsen said. "You don't want to have turnovers, you don't want to have a three-and-out with three incomplete passes and you hand the ball back in 10 seconds.
"You have to find your balance with those things. Obviously we would have liked to score more – by no means were we trying not to score – but that's a good defense that has given teams fits for a long time. You score 31 points against them with our defense, you're going to be in good shape."
And that, in the end, proved a true statement. Despite three touchdown passes from Wilson after halftime, the Seahawks offense only snapped the ball twice the entire game in position to tie the score. Those were their first two snaps of the game, the second of which resulted in a touchdown for Kuechly and a 14-0 cushion for the Panthers.
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.
"We're not going to sit here and pout about them scoring some points," Davis said. "It's the National Football League. It's the playoffs. They're here because they're a good football team, but we came away with the victory."
View game action photos from Carolina's 31-24 win over Seattle.