Panthers hold off Seahawks, advance to NFC title game


Luke Kuechly, Jermaine Kearse earn game balls

Carolina MLB Luke Kuechly returned an interception 14 yards for a touchdown and led the team in tackles with 11, but his most impressive play was a pass defensed late in the game. Jermaine Kearse gave the Seahawks a chance, scoring two touchdowns.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Four games into his playoff career, Cam Newton recognizes the key element to success. He calls it "Big Mo." There couldn't have been a better example than Carolina's 31-24 victory over Seattle on Sunday.

After emphatically backing up their superb regular season with one of the most dominating halves in football history, the Panthers hung on in the face of a furious Seahawks rally to survive.

"The playoffs bring out, more than any other time, the impact of 'Big Mo,'" Newton said after Carolina (16-1) moved into the NFC title game, which it will host next Sunday against Arizona (14-3). "Momentum. We can't wait for no one to make plays for us."

The Panthers, winners of 12 straight at home, made all the right plays in building a 31-0 lead, then were dominated by the two-time defending NFC champs in the second half. If Carolina wins its first Super Bowl, it can credit the lesson learned from the Seahawks (11-7).

"We have to find a way to complete a full game of football," the All-Pro quarterback said. "We have been known to take our foot off the throttle, and we have to find that killer instinct."

Newton noted how players, coaches and even fans were feeling the pressure in the final 30 minutes as Seattle staged a relentless comeback.

"That's what this game is going to teach us," said All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, who returned a first-quarter interception for a touchdown. "No matter how good you play in the first half, the second half is just as important. It's crazy. You go into these games, and you expect it to be like this, so it wasn't a surprise for us. But you've got to be locked in the whole game."

Jonathan Stewart, returning from a foot injury, scored two touchdowns after jump-starting the Panthers with a 59-yard sprint on the team's first play.

"We made a mess of it in the first half," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We look at this game as a microcosm of the season. We struggled so much early in the season to get going, and it took us a long time. When we finally did, we caught fire and got rolling. Everyone in here just feels like we ran out of time."

The Seahawks didn't run out of time before scoring two touchdowns in the first 7:20 of the third quarter. Finally with time to throw, Russell Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse for a 13-yard score and rookie Tyler Lockett for 33 yards, which made it 31-14 -- and unnerved the full house at Bank of America Stadium.

When the Seahawks succeeded on a fake punt from their 23, an epic comeback seemed possible. That drive stalled, but with Carolina's offense sputtering, Seattle got closer on Kearse's 3-yard catch of a jump ball against All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman.

With Newton waving the crowd into frenzied cheers on the sideline, the Panthers defense couldn't stop a 60-yard drive capped by Steven Hauschka's 36-yard field goal with 1:12 remaining.

At 31-24, All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis hauled in Hauschka's onside kick -- and Charlotte could breathe again.

"In the second half, we had to go for it," Wilson said. "We had to come out swinging. That was our mentality, and we did a great job of that."

This will be the Panthers' fourth trip to the NFC Championship Game and their first time as hosts. They are 1-2 in their previous appearances.

Carolina and Arizona will meet for the first time since the Panthers beat the Cardinals 27-16 in a 2014 wild-card game. Carolina opened as a 3-point favorite at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

The Panthers, who scored an NFL-best 500 points this season, stormed into the lead Sunday thanks to Stewart. He burst through the middle on the first snap and nearly outran everyone before being tackled at the Seattle 16 by Richard Sherman. Three plays later, Stewart surged into the end zone.

Stewart's return from the foot injury that cost him three games was far more distinguished than Marshawn Lynch's comeback from a two-month absence after abdominal surgery. Lynch, who finished with 20 yards on six carries, was nailed in the backfield for a 3-yard loss on his first touch, then turned around late for Wilson's pass over the middle under pressure from Kawann Short.

Kuechly was far more alert, grabbing the interception and sprinting 14 yards to make it 14-0 only 3:30 in. The scoring barrage continued when Stewart leaped in from the 1 to make it 21-0.

Wilson was again picked off under relentless pressure, this time by Cortland Finnegan at the Seattle 29. Graham Gano's 48-yard field goal made it 24-0, and Greg Olsen's spectacular, 19-yard reaching catch over double coverage made it 31-0.

That ended the onslaught, and the Seahawks who returned for the second half were an entirely different team, energetic and efficient.

Wilson, who was sacked five times, made some big throws, particularly to Kearse, who had 11 catches for 110 yards. Wilson went 31-for-48 for 366 yards, but the early turnovers -- Seattle had an NFC-low 16 in the regular season -- and spotty defense were too much to overcome.

Game notes

Stewart finished with 106 yards on 19 carries and extended Carolina's string of 100-yard rushing games to 28. Seattle hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 27 games. ... The biggest NFL halftime lead was in 1991, when Buffalo was up 41-3 on Oakland. ... Seattle lost DE Cliff Avril (neck) and LT Russell Okung (shoulder) during the game.

The Associated Press and ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.