Russell Wilson showed Cam Newton what a franchise quarterback looks like

SEATTLE -- Cam Newton didn't have to look far on Saturday night to see what a franchise quarterback looks like.

He was wearing No. 3 for the Seattle Seahawks.

Russell Wilson stepped up on the big stage once again, completing all eight of his third-down pass attempts -- three of them for touchdowns -- in a 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers that sent the defending Super Bowl champions back to the NFC Championship Game.

Newton, who celebrates big moments with his patented "Superman" move, looked human.

His first-quarter fumble led to Seattle's first touchdown. He took a third-quarter sack in Seattle territory that derailed a drive with Carolina trailing only 14-10.

Then came his biggest mistake, a fourth-quarter interception that safety Kam Chancellor returned 90 yards for a touchdown, registering what locals called a "Kam Quake" on the seismograph.

On a night when Newton needed to create a "Cam Quake" for the Panthers to keep their improbable playoff run alive, he couldn't cause a rumble.

Newton wasn't the only Panther to make mistakes during the loss, but as he said afterward, "At the end of the day, I'm the quarterback and I have the last say."

The Panthers have shown the past two seasons they have a defense that can win games. That defense held its own in the first half Saturday, limiting Seattle -- which led the NFL in rushing this season -- to 21 yards on the ground.

What the Panthers haven't shown is they can be a Super Bowl contender with Newton. He is 1-2 in the playoffs, with four interceptions and a passer rating of 79.5 in the two losses.

To win playoff games, particularly when you're playing a top defense, you have to be special. Wilson was, with a passer rating of 149.2 against a Carolina defense that was allowing an average of just more than 11 points in its previous five games.

And he was beyond special on third down.

"That's a good way to win games," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said of Wilson's third-down numbers. "Third down, that's a money down."

Wilson, 26, will get his money. There were reports early in the day that the third-year player was in line to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league after the season.

If it happens, he's worth every penny.

Newton, 25, has yet to prove worthy of being more than a middle-of-the-road quarterback. Despite going 16-13-1 with trips to the playoffs the past two seasons, his performance on Saturday will once again raise questions about whether he deserves franchise-quarterback money -- likely more than $20 million per season.

The Panthers don't have to be in a hurry to re-sign him. Newton is tied up through the 2015 season, and the team can use the franchise tag in 2016 if necessary.

Carolina also can't afford not to re-sign Newton. As inconsistent as he has been at times, the organization is in much better shape at quarterback than half the teams in the league.

Just ask the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals.

Newton said the team will grow and mature from this game. He said he will grow and mature from it.

His teammates still believe in him.

"Cam is a heck of a player," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "He's going to win a lot of games in this league and he's going to win championships."

To do that Newton will have to find a way to excel against top defenses such as Seattle's in the playoffs. He'll have to find the way to make big plays with his arm when it counts, as Wilson did on this cool, misty night.

"Unfortunately, turnovers and missed opportunities," coach Ron Rivera said when asked about the difference between the two teams.

Newton had two interceptions. He should have had four, maybe five.

The fumble was a read-option on which he could hand off to Jonathan Stewart or pull the ball out and pass. Newton pulled the ball out when Seattle defenders got to Stewart too fast.

"I did a bad job of protecting the football," Newton said. "When you're playing a good defense, you've just got to take what they give you."

Newton didn't take. He gave.

"A lot of times I was overlooking the play that needed to be made, instead trying to make a bigger play," Newton said.

Wilson gave his team a chance to win by making plays when he had to. Understanding when the Panthers were blitzing, he threw first-half touchdowns against rookie safety Tre Boston and rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere when Carolina was in man coverage.

Wilson played smart. He made the big plays.

That's why he's 4-0 against the Panthers and Newton.

"I think he's special," Rivera said. "All the young man has done is win."

Rivera believes Newton is special as well. But is he special enough to warrant a huge contract? Special enough to take Carolina to the next level?

Neither Rivera nor Newton had to look far to see what it takes.

He was wearing No. 3 for Seattle.