CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a changing of the guard in the NFC on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
It wasn’t a subtle exchange.
It was a loud statement.
The Carolina Panthers ripped control of the NFC from the two-time defending conference champion Seattle Seahawks with a 31-24 victory to advance to next Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Arizona Cardinals.
They did it with a first half that was as dominating as any performance in the NFL this season, particularly because it came against a team that played as good as any other in the league the second half of the season.
It was a 31-0 avalanche by halftime.
Now the top-seeded Panthers are a home win against the second-seeded Cardinals away from their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2003 season.
But Sunday’s game was a sign that there is a new sheriff in the conference.
The Panthers backed up their NFL-best 15-1 regular-season record with a dominating first-half performance that was enough to advance.
They were, as safety Roman Harper said earlier in the week, “the better team."
Carolina was the fresher team as well after a first-round bye. Nobody was fresher than running back Jonathan Stewart, who missed the last three regular-season games with a sprained foot.
Stewart went 59 yards on the first offensive play Sunday. Carolina’s biggest mistake was a fumble by rookie Cameron Artis-Payne on the play after Stewart’s run, but fullback Mike Tolbert recovered it.
From there the avalanche began, beginning with Stewart’s 4-yard touchdown run and followed by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly returning an interception 14 yards for a touchdown on Seattle’s second play to make it 14-0.
The first-half rout was unexpected.
It also was thorough.
Carolina’s next goal is to make sure there is no quick changing of the guard against the Cardinals next Sunday.
Game ball: Kuechly, as mentioned above, picked off Russell Wilson on Seattle’s second play and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown. He led a defense that was suffocating in the first half with eight tackles and finished with a team-best 11. He also defended two passes, none bigger than one to Doug Baldwin with just more than two minutes remaining.
Fresh legs: Stewart showed on the first play why the Panthers were more than willing to let him sit out the final three regular-season games. Stewart showed his explosiveness with the 59-yard run on his first carry against a Seattle defense that had allowed 85 rushing yards combined in the past two games. Stewart had 84 yards on 11 carries in the first half and finished with 106 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
Can’t defend the TE: The Seahawks struggled defensively most of the season against the tight end. Carolina was more than willing to take advantage. Greg Olsen had six catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. Backup tight end Ed Dickson added two catches for 22 yards. Olsen had seven catches for 131 yards, including the winning touchdown, in a 27-23 victory at Seattle on Oct. 18.
Comebacks: One of Carolina’s weaknesses this season was allowing opponents back in games in which it had built big leads. It happened again in this one, although you figured Seattle’s potent offense would catch fire at some point.
What were they thinking? How could the Panthers not have been ready for a fake punt with a 31-14 lead late in the third quarter? Seattle successfully converted it. Details like that can’t be overlooked when you’re trying to win a championship.
Ouch: Olsen left with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter but returned.