© AP Photo/Bob Leverone
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates with fans after the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C. The Panthers won 31-24.
If the Carolina Panthers win their first NFL championship, they can credit the lesson they learned from the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
Playoff games are never truly over until that final gun.
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 31-24.
The Panthers have won 12 straight home games, and next Sunday, Carolina (16-1) hosts Arizona (14-3) for a trip to the Super Bowl.
“Man, it was like a bend, but don't break. It was really excruciating to watch,” All-Pro quarterback Cam Newton said. “It was a tale of two halves and we've got to be better than that.”
Jonathan Stewart, returning from a foot injury, scored two touchdowns after jumpstarting the Panthers with a 59-yard sprint on their first play. Newton threw for a touchdown and fellow All-Pro Luke Kuechly ran in an early interception for a score as Carolina built a 31-0 lead.
Seattle (11-7), showing its pedigree as two-time NFC champs, climbed back within seven points.
The Seahawks got 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, 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 offence 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' defence 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.
“We were conservative, but at the end of the day, you have to trust coaching,” Newton said.
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 - and after the Panthers recovered a fumble by backup running back Cameron Artis-Payne at the 8 - 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, 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 1/2 minutes in.
The scoring barrage continued as the Panthers outgained the Seahawks 155 yards to 25 and had eight first downs to one in the opening quarter. And on the second play of the second period, Stewart leaped in from the 1 - that extended Carolina's string of 100-yard rushing games to 28 and made it 21-0.
Stewart finished with 106 yards on 19 carries.
Wilson was picked off under relentless pressure again, this time by Cortland Finnegan at the Seattle 29, on the next play from scrimmage, and Graham Gano's 48-yard field goal made it 24-0.
Carolina seemed headed to the biggest halftime lead in any playoff game - Buffalo was up 41-3 on Oakland in 1991 - when Greg Olsen made a spectacular 19-yard reaching catch over double coverage with 6:26 remaining for a 31-0 edge.
But that ended the onslaught, and the Seahawks missed a 55-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the half, then meekly trotted off the field.
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 has 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 defence were too much to overcome.