CHARLOTTE-The game started with a pair of missed tackles that led to a 59-yard run by Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart. A fumble a play later by teammate Cameron Artis Payne, bounced forward and was recovered by the Panthers. A small run by Cam Newton got them a first and goal, and Stewart rumbled in for a touchdown, 7-0 Panthers.
On Seattle’s very first drive, a handoff to Marshawn Lynch got stuffed for a loss of 3-yards. The next play, pressure forced Russell Wilson to accelerate a pass play intended for Lynch. It would be intercepted and returned for 14-yards for a defensive score by the Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly, and it became 14-0, Panthers. Sacks, relentless pressure, and poor starting field conditions made for a rough start for the Seahawks. The hits kept coming, with Stewart leaping in for another score from 1 yard out. A second Wilson interception (followed by a passed defensed by Richard Sherman, and a Michael Bennett sack against Newton) in the first half set up a 48-yard Field Goal from Graham Gano. On the next Carolina possession, Greg Olsen caught a 19-yard bullet in coverage from Cam Netwon to make the score 31-0 with 6:26 to go in the half. A missed 55-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka with :04 to go in the second quarter kept the ‘Hawks from putting points on the board in the first half.
The ‘Hawks looked more like a punching bag for the 15-1 Panthers than the rivals we’ve all known them to be. Russell Okung and Cliff Avril both left the game with injuries. It looked as grim as it’s ever been for Seattle. Wilson’s numbers reflected this. In the first half, he was 10-17, for 111 yards and two INTs. In the 3rd quarter alone, he was 7-10, 92 yards and two TDs.
After the half though, things changed. Tyler Lockett returned a kick for 50-yards, and was the beneficiary of an extra 15-yards from a penalty on the Panthers. A few plays later, a 13-yard touchdown reception from Jermaine Kearse brought the first points for Seattle. Wilson overthrew Baldwin on a 1st and 10, but found Tyler Lockett on a chimney pass for 33 yards, and a touchdown after Seattle converted two separate 3rd and long downs. With just over half of the 3rd quarter done, Seattle had scored twice and forced Carolina to punt twice. The two teams spent the next six minutes playing a defensive slugfest, with Carolina punting away. Seattle opted to punt after a key 3rd down conversion came up flat, and it wasn’t a punt, it was a fake play by DeShawn Shead for 17 yards to keep the drive alive. A few plays later, they would actually punt with less than :50 to go in the 3rd quarter. Ted Ginn caught, them dropped the punt, but quickly recovered it.
Carolina began to become unhinged in the 4th, with Newton burning a timeout on 3rd and 6 with 11:58 to go, cursing loudly as he got to the sideline. Seattle looked like it came unhinged a bit too, after the Panthers converted said 3rd down and Pete Carroll was having none of it. He received a sideline warning from the referees. After another Carolina punt, Lockett would complete an incredible toe drag, which the referees called out of bounds originally, but Carroll challenged the call and it was reversed, to the tune of 27 crucial yards. The ‘Hawks would put more points on the board again in the 4th quarter, with Wilson finding Kearse again for a 3-yard score against Josh Norman in the end zone with just over 6:00 left in the game. Seattle would continue to hold Newton scoreless, and prevent the lethal Gano from getting into FG range.
Ultimately, Seattle had to settle for a FG with over 1:00 to go in the game, after Carolina bled the clock profusely while racking up hard 1st downs (and no timeouts due to a failed challenge call by Carolina on an inbound catch by Kearse with 2:15 on the clock). Hauschka laid the ball between the uprights after Wilson tried twice to successfully find Luke Willson and Jermaine Kearse in the end zone. With time fading, Seattle opted for the onside kick, and the Panther’s veteran linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. recovered the kick, to ice the 7-point lead for the Panthers. The Panthers converted 55% of their 3rd downs, and the Seahawks converted 45% of theirs. Had they converted a few more 3rd downs, Carolina would have been forced to bleed less time, possibly widening the window for Seattle to tie the game with. The ‘Hawks came up short, but their unquestionable talent in the second half demonstrated true grit matched by few teams.
The Panthers will play next in their first NFC Championship game in ten years, while the Seahawks do not advance to the NFC Championship game for the first time in three years. The offensive stars in this game were Wilson, who after a rough start, (two INTs, 0 TDs, less than 5 1st downs) finished the day 31-48, 366 passing yards, three TDs, and two INTs and Jermaine Kearse, who reeled in 11 receptions for 111 yards and two TDs. Doug Baldwin had 82 yards on eight receptions Marshawn Lynch rushed for 20 yards on 6 carries, and caught two passes for 15 yards. This was largely a product of the hole that Carolina opened up on Seattle early on. Though the Panthers largely tried to protect their lead in the second half, the ‘Hawks defense found its rhythm and forced 5 straight Panthers punts. They racked up 82 tackles (22 more than Carolina had), with K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner leading the way with 14 and 13, respectively. They recorded three passes defensed, and Frank Clark recorded a sack on Cam Netwon.
After the game, head coach Pete Carroll described the game as a ‘microcosm of Seattle’s season’ equating the slow start and furious finish of this game as emblematic of the rough start and string of wins down the stretch that the ‘Hawks had this season. The ‘Hawks now focus on solidifying their personnel department in the offseason, with 17 members of their 53 man roster hitting free agency come March. One thing is for certain; this team knows just how far it can be pushed, and how much it can push back. The future is bright for your boys in blue and green.