The Seattle Seahawks defense forced a trio of turnovers, Russell Wilson threw a trio of touchdowns and the Seahawks dominated the Carolina Panthers, 31-17, on Saturday to advance to the NFC Championship Game for the second-straight year.
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The Seahawks will play the winner of Sunday’s Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers game at CenturyLink Field on Jan. 18 with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
On Saturday against the Panthers, defenses were expected to be the storyline of the game — and boy, were they ever.
Both teams went through phases of dominance, but they also allowed some big plays which kept the game close until the fourth quarter.
The Panthers elected to receive the opening kickoff, but the intensity of the crowd and defense caused an early three-and-out.
Seattle’s offense didn’t fair much better, however, and both teams exchanged punts until Cam Newton tried throwing a deep ball to Philly Brown midway through the first quarter, a pass which was picked off by Richard Sherman.
Perhaps surprisingly, the pick was Sherman’s first career postseason interception in six games. He also had three tackles on Saturday.
The Seahawks offense wasn’t able to capitalize on the turnover as Carolina’s defense stepped up and forced another Seahawks punt.
But the Panthers gave the ball right back to the Seahawks when Newton and Jonathan Stewart mishandled the read-option exchange. Michael Bennett‘s hit forced the ball out and Tony McDaniel recovered in Carolina territory. Stewart had 70 of the Panthers 132 rushing yards.
January 10, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas (29) reacts after he intercepts a pass intended for Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) during the first half in the 2014 NFC Divisional playoff football game at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Four plays later, Wilson threw a bloop fade to Doug Baldwin in the back of the endzone to give the Seahawks a 7-0 lead more than 14 minutes into the first quarter. Baldwin finished the evening with three catches for 38 yards.
The Panthers countered with a long 14-play, 79-yard drive that lasted more than eight minutes and concluded when Newton found Kelvin Benjamin on a slant route for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown the Seahawks defense allowed since the second quarter of a Week 15 win against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Panthers touchdown tied the game at 7-7, but Seattle regained the lead on their next possession.
Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse for a 63-yard score that energized the crowd and shifted momentum back into Seattle’s favor.
Kearse caught the pass with one hand and won the race down the sideline, eventually being pushed into the endzone pylon which he touched with the ball to secure the score. The play was the longest passing touchdown in Seahawks postseason history. It was a career day for Kearse who had three catches for 129 yards.
Before the half ended, the Panthers reduced their deficit to 14-10 when Graham Gano hit a 35-yard field goal. Gano tried that kick three times because of penalties and Kam Chancellor cemented his legacy in athleticism with a few spectacular hurdles during those plays, which didn’t count but looked awesome.
The Panthers held the ball for nine minutes longer than the Seahawks did in the first half and contained Seattle to just 24 rushing yards, but costly turnovers allowed the Seahawks to enter the intermission with the lead.
Neither team scored until the first play of the fourth quarter, when Steven Hauschka nailed a 37-yard field goal to give Seattle a 17-10 advantage. The kick extended Hauschka’s postseason perfection: he is 12-for-12 on postseason field goal attempts in his career.
The Seahawks extended their lead further four minutes later when Wilson found Luke Willson for a 25-yard score that ended a six-play, 58-yard drive. Willson had four catches for 68 yards.
January 10, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) runs the ball against the Carolina Panthers during the second half in the 2014 NFC Divisional playoff football game at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Now working with a 24-10 lead, Seattle’s defense took over. The Panthers worked their way down the field until Chancellor stepped in front of a mistimed throw from Newton.
Chancellor returned the rock 90 yards and didn’t stop until he was in the endzone to give the Seahawks a 31-10 lead. It was the longest interception returned for a touchdown in Seahawks postseason history.
The turnover was Carolina’s third of the game, though it could have been their fifth. Sherman and Earl Thomas both dropped interceptions earlier in the game. Thomas was everywhere on Saturday with 11 tackles and two defended passes.
Thomas’ 11 tackles were tied with Chancellor’s 11 for the team-high.
Even with the game seemingly out of reach for the Panthers, the team from Carolina refused to give up, getting back on the field for an eight-play, 83-yard drive that ended when Newton threw a 15-yard TD pass to Benjamin to make it a 31-17 game.
Benjamin finished the contest with seven catches for 75 yards and a pair of touchdowns, leading Carolina receivers.
Newton would finish with 246 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, interceptions and fumbles.
The Seahawks recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock from there.
The Panthers finished the game with great stats against the Seahawks, but their trouble was holding onto the football and Seattle’s defense made them pay.
The Panthers had more total yards than the Seahawks (362-348), more first downs (21-16), and a greater time of possession (34:03-25:57).
Nevertheless, it will be the Seahawks advancing to the NFC title game next weekend.
Wilson finished the game with 268 passing yards for three touchdowns and 22 rushing yards.
Marshawn Lynch ran for 59 yards on 14 carries.
The NFC Championship Game will be on Jan. 18 at 12:05 p.m. PT at CenturyLink Field.