CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers didn't want any help in their quest to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the first time in franchise history.
They didn't need any.
The Panthers spotted Tampa Bay three points but were spot-on for the next two quarters, reeling off 31 consecutive points to roll to a 38-10 victory that secured the top seed and homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Carolina needed to win or have Arizona lose to earn the spot. Both happened, though the Panthers were unaware because the Bank of America Stadium video boards didn't provide score updates from the Cardinals' 36-6 loss to Seattle.
"I made that decision," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I didn't want to know. I wanted to make sure we were focusing on what we needed to do and playing the way we needed to play.
"I wanted our guys to play to win. I think there's some lessons in that."
The Panthers bounced back from what proved to be their lone loss of the regular season last Sunday in Atlanta to match five other teams for the second-best regular season record in the 16-game era behind only New England's 16-0 team of 2007. Of the five previous 15-1 teams, two won the Super Bowl while three fell short of playing in the Super Bowl.
"This is a very satisfying, it really is," Rivera said, "but we've still got a lot of work to do."
The Panthers have the advantage of doing all their work at home thanks to outstanding play in all three phases and a performance by quarterback Cam Newton that solidified his standing as the leading candidate for MVP.
Newton completed 21-of-26 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another two touchdowns, tying a pair of NFL career records along the way. The fifth-year quarterback matched Steve Young with 31 games with at least one passing and one rushing touchdown and tied Young for most career rushing touchdowns for a quarterback with 43.
"Steve was always a guy I idolized," Newton said. "For me to be in the same talks with him, it's just a blessing."
Newton didn't do it alone. With Carolina's top two running backs – Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker – and top wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. out with injuries, the offense still flourished. Rookie receiver Devin Funchess caught a touchdown and posted career highs with seven receptions and 120 yards, and rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne scored his first career touchdown.
"At some point, the narrative that we don't have a lot of good players has to come to an end," said Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who had just two catches for 16 yards. "We've seen throughout the course of the season that we have guys that can contribute all over the place. Funchess came on today, Philly (Brown) had some big catches and Cap (Artis-Payne) filled in nicely when two weeks ago he was our third-string running back.
"Yeah, Cam is arguably the best player in the whole league, but we've got a lot of other guys who can play."
The Panthers took command with 24 points in the second quarter and capped the half with a key defensive stand. Newton got it started with a 1-yard bootleg touchdown to finish off a 77-yard march that featured back-to-back passes to Brown for 21 and 17 yards. After a field goal expanded the edge to 10-3, linebacker Thomas Davis came up with the first of two Carolina interceptions to set up a 49-yard march controlled by Artis-Payne.
"The offensive line did a great job, a great push, and (Mike Tolbert) got his block," said Artis-Payne, who made it 17-3 by going untouched for an 11-yard score. "That got me to the second level."
Receiver Jerricho Cotchery made it 24-3 on the first play after the two-minute warning, hauling in a perfect pass from Newton for a 31-yard score.
"It was just a great throw and a great call in that situation," Cotchery said. "Then it's up to me to run a great route and catch the ball."
Tampa Bay, behind rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, threatened to respond by marching 78 yards down to the Carolina 2 with seven seconds left in the half, but the Carolina defense stopped two pass plays to exhaust the clock. Then at the end of Carolina's first drive of the second half – after the defense came up with another stop and special teams forced a fumble on a punt – Newton scored another 1-yard touchdown to make it 31-3.
"We took care of business," Newton said.
View game action photos from Carolina's 38-10 win over Tampa Bay.