By Dave Thomas

It’s rather a given in the world of professional sports or at any level for that matter; falling behind by a sizable margin early in a contest is a recipe for disaster. As the back-to-back NFC champion Seattle Seahawks found out Sunday in the Queen City, spotting top-ranked Carolina 31 points was all but a recipe for disaster. Despite a hard-fought comeback in the second half, the Seahawks fell by a 31-24 final score, making for a long plane ride back to the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, Carolina moves on to host second-seeded Arizona in next Sunday’s NFC Championship.

For the Seahawks, one might think that a pair of long flights, bitter cold weather a week ago in Minnesota, and having a less than 100 percent Marshawn Lynch at their disposal was all too much for them in the end. On the flip side, Cam Newton and the Panthers (16-1) built a big enough lead where they were able to go scoreless over the last 30 minutes of the game and still emerge victorious.

Offense: (B-)

Despite tallying 24 straight points in the second half, Seattle (11-7) could never get over the hump. Quarterback Russell Wilson was under duress in the first half especially, as Carolina picked off the Seattle signal caller early in the first quarter, allowing the Panthers to take a 14-0 lead. Wilson would finish his afternoon going 31-of-48 for 366 yards, three TD’s and a pair of interceptions. While Lynch saw his first action after missing seven games due to abdominal surgery, he was limited in his effectiveness. Lynch finished the day with only 20 yards rushing on six carries. Through the air, Seattle (outgained Carolina 403-295 total yards) was led by Jermaine Kearse, who finished with 11 catches for 110 yards and a pair of scores. Seattle’s offensive line had its hands full to say the least, as Wilson was sacked five times on the day.

Defense: (C)

You can’t spot a team 31 points on its home field and expect to win very often, especially the top-ranked team in the NFL. Newton, who will likely win the NFL’s MVP regular season award when all is said and done, went 16-of-22 for 161 yards and one touchdown. While the numbers are far from staggering, it was Carolina’s ground game that did much of the damage. Running back Jonathan Stewart had a pair of touchdown runs, finishing the afternoon with 106 yards on the ground on 19 carries. Newton, who is one of the more elusive quarterbacks in the league, rushed for a mere three yards on 11 carries. Again, far from decisive numbers, but Seattle’s inability to shut down Carolina’s offense in the first 30 minutes of play was too deep a hole for the team to rally from. K.J. Wright concluded a stellar season with 14 total tackles, while Bobby Wagner provided 13 total stops, including seven solo tackles.

Special Teams: (C)

Even though Seattle still would have come up short, kicker Steven Hauschka missed on a long field goal just before halftime. While the Seahawks would have still been badly behind at the break, three points right before intermission would have given them a little more confidence going into the half, not to mention changed what points were needed down the stretch during the rally. Meanwhile, punter Jon Ryan was only able to average 36.3 yards on three punts.

Coaching: (C)

Yes, Pete Carroll can’t run the ball or make stops for the Seahawks, but you almost got the feeling like Carolina’s Ron Rivera was one step ahead of Carroll, at least that is so through the first 30 minutes of play. It is rare to see a Carroll-coached squad look so out of sync, especially early in a contest as important as this one was. While a pair of long flights in the last two weeks may have ultimately taken their toll on a team that many believed had a good shot of going into Charlotte and coming away with a victory, the bottom line is Seattle came up short. For Seattle fans, the first 30 minutes were surely not what they would have expected when a Carroll team steps onto the playing field.

Yes, Sunday’s loss was far from the heart-breaker that was last season’s Super Bowl debacle to New England, but they all sting at the end of the day. On the bright side, Seattle has an off-season now to address some concerns on the offensive line, take pleasure in knowing it has some young running talent behind Lynch, and get itself hungry once again for an NFC playoff push and ultimately a Super Bowl run come next season.

Dave Thomas has been covering the sports world since his first job as a sports editor for a weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania back in 1989. He has covered a Super Bowl, college bowl games, MLB, NBA and more. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

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