Panthers continue astonishing run, one step from making history

CHARLOTTE — With their win over the Arizona Cardinals in Saturday’s wild-card round, the Carolina Panthers continued their membership in a very exclusive club. More important though, they polished their résumé for a potential invite to a much more prestigious group.

When the Panthers qualified for the playoffs with their 7-8-1 record, they became just the second team to move past the regular season with a losing record. The 2010 Seattle Seahawks were the first.

By beating the Cardinals 27-16, the Panthers joined those Seahawks as the only team with a losing record to win a playoff game. If Dallas dispatches Detroit on Sunday, Carolina will travel to Seattle next week in an attempt to move deeper into the playoffs than any losing team in NFL history; the 2010 Seahawks lost to the Chicago Bears in the divisional round.

If recent history is any indication, the Panthers could travel to Seattle and have a good chance to upset the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

In each of the last three seasons the Panthers have lost to the Seahawks. Each game was close — the margin of defeat wasn’t more than five points in any game, and the three losses were by a combined 13 points.

Carolina’s 16-12 loss at home in 2012 came mainly because the Seahawks held the Panthers to 190 total yards. But Carolina did force three Seattle turnovers.

Jermaine Kearse caught a 43-yard pass in the fourth quarter to give Seattle a 12-7 win over Carolina in 2013.

Carolina came even closer to beating Seattle in this year’s Week 8 contest. The Panthers held a 9-6 lead deep in the fourth quarter until Luke Willson caught a 23-yard pass with 47 seconds left to seal a 13-9 win for the Seahawks.

Losses in three consecutive seasons mean the Seahawks have Carolina’s number. But these three low-scoring affairs do give some hope to the Panthers. Carolina averaged 9.3 points per game in its three most recent losses to Seattle, with the Seahawks scoring just 13.7.

Defense will be the name of the game, and Carolina’s defense has been stellar of late.

Not only did Carolina set a playoff record by holding Arizona to just 78 total yards (the fewest ever in a playoff game), its defense has been one of the catalysts for success of late.

The Panthers won their last four regular-season games to move from 3-8-1 to 7-8-1 and take the NFC South. In those four games they gave up 43 points combined, or 10.8 per game. Add in the 16 points they allowed to Arizona (Carolina handed them two at the end of the game as punter Brad Nortman surrendered himself in the end zone for a safety), and during the recent five-game winning streak, Carolina has allowed 11.8 points per game, and never more than 17.

Carolina went 12-4 last season mainly on the success of its defense. One of the bigger reasons why this team faltered early in 2014 was because the defense wasn’t playing well. Now that the Panthers are back to punishing teams with a vicious pass rush and wall-solid defense, they’re back to winning games.

If Dallas loses on Sunday, Carolina would travel to Green Bay instead of Seattle. The Panthers lost to the Packers in Week 7 by 21 points. It sounds crazy, but Carolina might be better off traveling to play the top-seeded Seahawks.

Still, no matter who Carolina faces next week, the Panthers are playing well enough on defense to start dreaming about the bigger picture.

To heck with being the first losing team to win two playoff games. Winning next week would get the Panthers one step closer to that prestigious club they can now safely eye.

FAIL MARY II: MORE MNF CONTROVERSY

Since the NFL expanded its playoff slate to include non-division winners, there have been 10 wild-card teams in the Super Bowl. There have been a handful of other teams (the 2011 New York Giants come to mind instantly) that have gotten hot late, won their division, and burned a path to the big game from wild-card weekend.

That’s the situation these Panthers are in right now.

The 2011 Giants won three of their final four regular-season games, and then won the next four to take the Super Bowl. The 2010 Packers won their last two regular-season games and then traveled that same four-game path as the Giants to win a title.

The 2014 Panthers have now won five straight. They’re on a hotter streak than either of those two Super Bowl champions. And there is only one team on a better winning streak than Carolina at this moment.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, it’s the Seahawks, who have won six games in a row.