CHARLOTTE – Cam Newton, your Carolina Panthers just won the NFC Championship. How do you feel?
Newton threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more, and linebacker Luke Kuechly and safeties Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston came up with two takeaways apiece as Carolina claimed the final coveted spot in Super Bowl 50 with a 49-15 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.
"We were able to put ourselves in position to make plays. Our guys flew around. They hustled," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I think this is really neat, I really do. I'm excited about the opportunity. More so than anything else, I'm excited for this organization."
Carolina will face the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers (6:30 p.m., CBS). The Broncos won the AFC title with a 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots earlier Sunday.
The Panthers dominated the early portions of the game by dominating both lines of scrimmage, and they never let up. Last week, the Panthers rolled to a 31-0 halftime lead in a Division Playoff against Seattle before holding on for a 31-24 victory. Sunday, leading 24-7 at halftime, they took the opening kickoff of the second half and kept the ball more than seven minutes before kicking a field goal.
The defense – minus linebacker Thomas Davis (arm) and safety Roman Harper (eye) – then forced a three-and-out. Carolina then marched 79 yards, jumpstarted by a 39-yard reception by Ted Ginn, Jr. and finished off by Newton runs of 11 and then 12 for the touchdown for a 34-7 lead.
"When we were getting ready to come out for the second half, I didn't have to say anything. The players said it," Rivera said. "Cam Newton stepped up and really challenged everybody. They took ownership.
"I like the energy they came out with."
That applied to the beginning of the game as well, when the Panthers made a statement early in the first NFC Championship game ever hosted by the organization. Carolina's first three drives of the game resulted in scores as the Panthers consistently controlled things along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Graham Gano got it going with a 45-yard field goal, then Ginn found the end zone on a remarkable play against his former team. After Ginn set the table with a 32-yard punt return, he scored on a reverse from the 22-yard line, when Newton faked a handoff, faked a run and pitched it back to Ginn, who eventually weaved his way all the way back across the field for the touchdown.
"I just tried to become an athlete," Ginn said. "I got around the corner but (cornerback Justin) Bethel held me up a little bit, but that let me see the defense a little bit, and then I just continued on the journey.
"It had shut down, but Pops always told me to use my shoes, so I just tried to use my shoes, and I had two blockers on the other side and did what I could do."
On Carolina's next possession, facing a third-and-long from its own 14-yard line, Newton spotted Philly Brown open at the 40 versus man-to-man coverage. Brown gathered it, and then with one subtle move got past safety Rashad Johnson and sped to an 86-yard score, the longest play in Panthers postseason history.
The Cardinals, known for succeeding with long shots down the field, were suddenly a long shot to win, in a 17-0 hole as Carolina's secondary exceeded expectations and its defensive line matched its great expectations.
"I know the big buzz all week was about their receiving core and quarterbacks and how they take a lot of shots deep," cornerback Robert McClain said. "We had to take coaching and be on point during the week as though every practice is the game.
"You're going to make some mistakes. That's part of football – it's not going to be a perfect game – but if you stick together every single play and you want it more than the other guy across from you, it's going to show."
McClain and Co. sparkled in part because Carolina's front seven didn't give quarterback Carson Palmer time to get comfortable.
"Our defensive line, we know we can be the best in the league if we come out and communicate and get off the ball," defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "We can be unstoppable, and that's what we were today."
Arizona did threaten to get back into it midway through the second quarter, when the Cardinals pieced together a 79-yard touchdown drive, capped by David Johnson's 1-yard touchdown run with 5:44 left in the half.
The Arizona defense followed with a three-and-out, and the Cardinals appeared set to get good field position off a short Brad Nortman punt, but Patrick Peterson overran the ball and muffed it. Cornerback Teddy Williams recovered it at the Arizona 46, and five plays later Newton scored with one of his signature, over-the-top 1-yard runs for a 24-7 lead just after the two-minute warning.
Craziness ensued from there, with three of the next four plays resulting in turnovers but with both teams missing out on scoring opportunities in the process. A Peterson interception and 72-yard return to the Carolina 22 negated a scoring chance created by a Charles Johnson strip-sack and Boston fumble recovery, but then Coleman made a leaping interception of Palmer on the next snap in the end zone.
"It was a big momentum shift," Coleman said. "Tre had the fumble recovery, we were in position, and (tight end) Ed Dickson was open in the seam. The ball sailed – that happens – and then the thing that may go unnoticed was the hustle of Ted Ginn to save the touchdown (on Peterson's return).
"That gave the defense another opportunity to line up and play, and obviously it turned into an interception that didn't allow them to get any points. Then we got the ball to start the second half and scored."
Coleman added a second interception midway through the fourth quarter, and Newton directed an 86-yard drive capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass to rookie Devin Funchess for a 42-15 lead. On Arizona's next offensive snap, Kuechly intercepted Palmer and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown that capped the scoring. Boston then added an interception - Palmer's fourth and final to go with two lost fumbles.
"It's unbelievable, to do this at home in front of this crowd," center Ryan Kalil said. "They've been unbelievable all year long. They're the best fans in the NFL, and we couldn't be happier for them.
"We're out there with the confetti celebrating, but when you walk by every guy, they say, 'One more. We've got one more.' We've got work left to do."
View game action photos from Carolina's 49-15 win over Arizona in the NFC Championship.