CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – Four games into his playoff career, Cam Newton recognizes the key element to success. He calls it “Big Mo,” and there couldn’t have been a better example than Carolina’s 31-24 victory over Seattle on Sunday.
Emphatically backing up their superb regular season with one of the most dominating halves in football history, the Panthers then hung on in the face of a furious Seahawks rally before surviving.
“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 (13-3). “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. So if Carolina wins its first NFL championship, 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 added. “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 the fans were feeling the pressure in the final 30 minutes as Seattle staged a relentless comeback.
“It was a tale of execution,” he said. “We needed a little more of that in the second half. You just have to find ways to get your groove back on.”
“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 jumpstarting the Panthers with a 59-yard sprint on their first play.
In the second half, Seattle showed its pedigree and climbed within seven points.
“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.”
Not before they got two touchdowns in the first 7:20 of the third quarter. Finally given time to throw, Russell Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse for a 13-yard score and rookie Tyler Lockett for 33 yards, making it 31-14 — and making the full house at Bank of America Stadium unnerved.
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 later 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 host.
Carolina, which scored an NFL-best 500 points this season, stormed into the lead thanks to Stewart. He burst through the middle on the first snap and nearly outran everyone, getting tackled at the Seattle 16 by Richard Sherman. Three plays later, Stewart surged into the end zone.
His return from a foot injury that cost him three games was far more distinguished than Marshawn Lynch’s comeback from a two-month absence (abdominal surgery). Lynch finished with 20 yards on six carries.