By Shawn S. Lealos
Despite being a No. 1 seed, it seemed as though the Carolina Panthers had one of the toughest roads to the Super Bowl. In their first playoff game of the season, they had to play the Seattle Seahawks, a team that has been to back-to-back Super Bowls. After one half, it looked like the Panthers would blow out the Seahawks. However, the Seahawks made a game of it and roared back with 24 unanswered second half points before a Carolina recovery of an onside kick finally gave the Panthers a 31-24 victory. Here is a look at the Panthers team grades.
Based on the first half alone, the Carolina Panthers would have received straight A’s this week, because that was one of the most dominant halves of playoff football a fan will see. However, the offense sputtered in the second half and did nothing, allowing the Seahawks to almost come back to win the game. In the second half of the game, Carolina had the ball five times and punted four of those, with the fifth coming at the end of the game. Combined, the five final drives for Carolina only gained 75 total second half yards.
However, that first half really showed how great the Panthers can be. Cam Newton finished the game, completing 16 of 22 passes for 161 yards and one touchdown, while also running for three yards on 11 carries. With a big lead, Carolina didn’t need Newton as much in the second half, so that limited his need to throw the ball. He was still very accurate in that second half; he just didn’t need to throw the ball as much. Greg Olsen, who had an injury scare in the game, led the team with six receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown. He returned after the injury to catch an important first down pass from Newton in the second half to eat up necessary minutes.
The real hero in the first half surge was Jonathan Stewart, who returned from injury to run for 106 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Mike Tolbert added 17 yards on seven carries, but neither man found much room to run against the Seahawks’ tough run defense in the second half of the game. They did help try to run the clock down, but their inability to pick up first downs in the second half almost blew their big first half lead.
The defense was dominating in the first half of play. They completely shut down the Seahawks high powered offense. After the Panthers took a quick 7-0 lead after a Stewart touchdown on their first drive, the Panthers defense held strong and All-Pro Luke Kuechley intercepted Russell Wilson’s first pass attempt of the game and returned it 14 yards for a defensive score to give Carolina a 14-0 lead. On the second drive, Kawann Short sacked Wilson to stop that drive and Seattle ended up punting. On the third drive, newly signed Cortland Finnegan intercepted Wilson on the first play of the drive to set up a Carolina field goal. A Tre Boston sack on the fourth drive ended that, and Carolina went up 31-0.
Much like the offense, the defense faltered in the second half of play. There was no answer for Russell Wilson and company in that second half as they scored three touchdowns and one field goal on their next five drives. Wilson ended up completing 31 of 48 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, to go along with his two first half picks. He spread the ball around, with Jermaine Kearse catching 11 balls for 110 yards and two touchdowns, while Doug Baldwin hauled in eight passes and Tyler Lockett scored the other touchdown.
The Panthers stuffed a returning Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks running game. While Jonathan Stewart was on fire in his return from injury, Lynch only managed 20 yards on six carries while Wilson led the team with 32 yards on three quarterback scrambles. By the end of the game, the team that entered the playoffs as the best in the NFL for turnover ratio left this game with a plus two.
Special Teams: B
When it comes to special teams, one play finally won this game for the Carolina Panthers. With 1:12 left in the game, the Seahawks had kicked a field goal and come within one touchdown of tying the game. An onside kick ensued, and if the Seahawks recovered, they had a great chance to complete their comeback. However, Thomas Davis recovered the onside kick for the Panthers and Cam Newton just needed to kneel down to end the game.
It made up for a fake punt that the Seattle Seahawks actually pulled off against Carolina. The play came from the Seahawks’ own 23, which was a very daring and risky call that paid off. However, that was the only drive that stalled for the Seahawks, who had to punt, saving the Panthers from a complete collapse.
The biggest problem in this game was the second half collapse for Carolina. According to Cam Newton after the game, the team was playing a very conservative style of play, and he said the important thing was to trust the coaching staff. However, taking the ball out of Newton’s hands in the second half and just playing to keep the lead was something that almost lost the game for the Carolina Panthers.
The Carolina Panthers held on to win the game against the tough Seattle Seahawks and next week have another defensive struggle. The Arizona Cardinals have a more explosive offense than the Seahawks thanks in large part to Larry Fitzgerald, and play with a strong stingy defense as well. The Panthers might not want to play so closely and actually play to win rather than play to not lose if they want to beat a very dangerous Cardinals team.
Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos. Examiner.com.