Panthers hold off Seahawks to reach NFC Championship game


The Carolina Panthers held off a superb comeback from the Seattle Seahawks to progress to the NFC Championship game with a thrilling 31-24 win in their divisional round contest on Sunday. 

Carolina lost to Seattle at the same stage last season, but the top-seeded Panthers quickly took command of this clash at Bank of America Stadium, surging into a 31-0 lead thanks in part to two rushing touchdowns from running back Jonathan Stewart - making his return after missing the last three games of the regular season with a sprained foot.

Stewart finished with 106 yards on the ground but he and quarterback Cam Newton were shut down in the second half by the Seahawks' defence as Seattle - who saw running back Marshawn Lynch struggle on his comeback from injury - attempted to pull off a miraculous fightback.

Russell Wilson threw three second-half touchdowns to help pull Seattle within seven points, but Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis successfully recovered an onside kick to ensure Carolina will meet the second-seeded Arizona Cardinals next Sunday for a place in the Super Bowl.

Stewart made an impact on the first play from scrimmage, slicing through for a 59-yard gain to take Carolina inside the Seattle 20-yard line before then finding the end zone with a four-yard rush.

The Panthers were soon celebrating again as, on the first Seahawks possession, linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted Russell Wilson and returned it 14 yards for the score.

Stewart went over from a yard out at the end of a 15-play drive to make it 21-0 and Graham Gano stretched the lead further with a 48-yard field goal after Wilson was picked off by Cortland Finnegan.

And the game appeared beyond doubt with under seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, Newton throwing over two defenders with a stunning pass to Olsen for a 19-yard score.

Seattle then failed with a fourth-down conversion attempt and saw Steven Hauschka miss a field goal at the end of the second quarter, but the momentum quickly turned upon the restart, Wilson finding a leaping Jermaine Kearse for a 13-yard score after a Tyler Lockett kick return and subsequent penalty had put Seattle in Carolina territory.

Wilson then hit Lockett with a magnificent 33-yard touchdown throw and set up a nervous finish with six minutes left in the fourth quarter with a typical display of escapism, evading the pass rush and looping a touchdown pass into the arms of Kearse.

After the Panthers did their best to milk the clock, Seattle got the ball back with less than three minutes remaining but, despite threatening to trim the deficit to three, were left to settle for a field goal from Hauschka, who was then tasked with pulling off a successful onside kick.

But Davis proved a safe pair of hands for Carolina and made the recovery to set up an enticing clash with the Cardinals.