The Carolina Panthers withstood a furious second half comeback from the Seattle Seahawks to win 31-24 to advance to the NFC Championship game.
The Panthers built a 31-point half-time lead before barely holding off Seattle’s relentless comeback, as quarterback Russell Wilson threw for three touchdowns and 366 yards, having been picked off for two interceptions in the first half.
Opposing quarterback Cam Newton, the league’s leading MVP candidate after tossing 35 touchdowns and running for 10 more in Carolina’s NFL-best 15-1 regular season, completed 16-of-22 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown.
It was running back Jonathan Stewart though, returning from a foot injury, who jump-started the Panthers’ play-off win, scoring two touchdowns and unleashing a 59-yard sprint on their first play. He finished the game with 106 yards, the first 100-yard rusher allowed by the Seahawks in 27 games.
Newton added a touchdown to Greg Olsen, and fellow All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly ran in an early Wilson interception for a score as Carolina built a 31-0 advantage at the break.
Seattle, showing their pedigree as two-time NFC champions, climbed back to within seven points as Wilson found Jermaine Kearse for two touchdowns and rookie Tyler Lockett for one.
A 50-yard return from Tyler Lockett, extended with a 15-yard penalty against Carolina, put Seattle deep into enemy territory with the first play of the second half and four plays later Seattle had its first points on the board.
The Seahawks made it a 10-point game with six minutes left after Wilson scrambled superbly to pick out Kearse once more for Seattle’s third touchdown.
A Steven Hauschka field goal with just over a minute remaining took Seattle back to within seven points but Carolina’s Thomas Davis recovered Seattle’s attempted onside kick to hold on.
Carolina move on to the NFC title game for the first time since 2005 where they will face the Arizona Cardinals, who beat the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in overtime on Saturday night.