SEATTLE – The Seattle Seahawks made more big plays. They didn't turn the ball over. And the defending Super Bowl champions ended the Panthers' season by claiming a 31-17 victory in an NFC Divisional Playoff on Saturday night at CenturyLink Field.
"They did the types of things that lead to winning championships," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We have to give them credit."
Carolina went toe-to-toe with Seattle. Two teams boasting hard-hitting defenses and physical rushing attacks went blow-for-blow. But the Seahawks outlasted the Panthers, forcing three turnovers and pushing a 14-10 halftime lead to 21 points in the fourth quarter.
"Having a performance like this makes you wish you could go out and play them again right now," quarterback Cam Newton said.
After a scoreless third quarter, Steven Hauschka gave Seattle a 17-10 lead with a 37-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Carolina went three-and-out on the ensuing possession after fullback Mike Tolbert dropped a pass over the middle on third-and-11.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and tight end Luke Willson then connected on consecutive third downs to extend the lead. On third-and-6, Willson spun out of a tackle to pick up 29 yards. On third-and-10 three plays later, Willson caught a 25-yard touchdown pass to give Seattle a two-touchdown lead with 10:26 remaining in the game.
Desperate for an immediate response, Newton drove Carolina deep into Seattle territory. But on second-and-4 from the Seahawks' 13-yard line, the game was putvout of reach.
Newton tried to find his third read on the play, tight Ed Dickson, but safety Kam Chancellor jumped the pass, picking it off and returning it 90 yards for a touchdown.
"(Wide receiver Brenton) Bersin was the first read and he slipped. By the time Cam got back over, he was a little bit late," Rivera said. "Who knows what would have happened if we scored a touchdown there. Instead, it goes the other way."
Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin hauled in his second touchdown catch with 2:34 left, but it was too little too late. Graham Gano's onside kick was recovered by Seattle wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, allowing the Seahawks to run out the clock.
"We felt like we were in good position," tight end Greg Olsen said, referring to the four-point halftime deficit. "It seemed like once we tried to get out of that rut (in the second half) we just couldn't."
Seattle took advantage of a Carolina turnover to open the scoring late in the first quarter. After running back Jonathan Stewart and Newton fumbled an exchange, Seahawks defensive tackle Tony McDaniel made the recovery at the Panthers' 28-yard line.
Four plays later, Wilson lofted a high pass to wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who leaped over rookie safety Tre Boston for the 16-yard touchdown.
"I was looking in the backfield," Boston said. "Frustrating, because that's technique, and we preach technique here."
The Panthers responded with a methodical 14-play, 79-yard drive to tie the game. Carolina converted four third downs, the last of which resulted in a 7-yard touchdown pass to Benjamin on third-and-6. Benjamin ran a quick slant and used his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame to shield cornerback Tharold Simon for the score.
Seattle quickly regained the lead. On the fifth play of the ensuing drive, Kearse went deep and separated himself from cornerback Bene Benwikere. Wilson's pass hit him in stride, and Kearse made a one-handed catch for a 63-yard touchdown.
"They caught us in pressures in both those (touchdowns)," Rivera said. "(Our defensive backs) were in good position and lost sight of the ball. A couple of nice throws and a couple of nice catches."
Carolina cut the halftime deficit to 14-10 thanks to a 13-play scoring drive. Benjamin made a spectacular catch in the back of the end zone but couldn't get both feet down, and later, Seattle safety Earl Thomas dropped an interception at the 1-yard line. Gano ultimately kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired.
That was as close as Carolina would get.
"I'm disappointed for our team," Rivera said. "They came so far. They fought. They endured an awful lot. They kept their heads up. They played together and they came together. I'm proud of these guys."