Don’t be fooled: Panthers are still NFL’s best team

CHARLOTTE — Don’t let the second half fool you.

Don’t think that almost squandering a 31-0 lead and needing an onside kick recovery to secure the win is a sign of what’s to come in the NFC Championship game or Super Bowl 50.

It isn’t.

The Carolina Panthers are still the NFL’s best team even though it didn’t look like it for the final two quarters of a 31-24 second-round NFC playoff home victory over Seattle.

The Seahawks’ fierce comeback was the combination of an excellent opponent finally getting its act together and Carolina still trying to master the tricky art of keeping and extending a big league while trying to avoid the types of mistakes that can allow an opponent to quickly close the gap.

Nothing more, nothing less.

"It’s just finding the balance of being aggressive but being smart," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen told "It’s a lot easier said than done. ‘Oh, don’t get conservative.’ You don’t want to create the spark or do anything stupid but you do want to continue to move the chains and get first downs and score points.

"It’s a fine balance."

It’s also one that the Panthers are still trying to master.

Carolina opened leads of 28 and 20 points in regular-season games against the New York Giants and Green Bay, respectively, before both opponents rallied in the second half to almost win.

The key word, though, is "almost."

"It’s human nature," Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said. "At times, you get a big lead and you kind of take your foot off the pedal. You go into protection mode. You don’t want to give up that (big) play."

But while Seattle was able to gradually chip away at Carolina’s lead, the fact that the Panthers had the luxury of coasting is far more impressive.

The Panthers opened a 14-0 lead before quarterback Cam Newton even threw his first pass. The returning Jonathan Stewart (foot) ripped off a 59-yard run on Carolina’s first offensive snap and capped the drive with a four-yard touchdown. The Panthers immediately struck again when middle linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted a Russell Wilson pass and returned it for a 14-yard score.

"It set the tempo for us," Kuechly said.

The Panthers didn’t stop rolling with two more touchdowns and a 48-yard Graham Gano field goal coming by midway through the second quarter. Carolina was so hot that head coach Ron Rivera said afterward, "I wish we could have skipped halftime. We’d have been in much better shape."

Seattle and Carolina took the field to start the third quarter with different mindsets. For Seattle, it was desperation and, as Wilson said, the need to "come out swinging." For the Panthers, it was bobbing and weaving to try and avoid becoming the first team in at least 15 years to squander a 31-point lead and lose.

"It was a tale of execution," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "We needed more of that in the second half. A lot of guys were playing with their butts tight. The coaches’ butts were tight. The fans’ butts were tight. My butt was tight, too. We’ve just got to find ways to get our groove back on. We’ll need a little more than that next Sunday."

But anyone thinking the Panthers are sweating what happened in the final two quarters heading into the NFC Championship game against visiting Arizona is fooling themselves. As Newton pointed out, "We didn’t break."

Instead, it was Carolina breaking Seattle’s attempts for a third straight Super Bowl appearance with the kind of first-half performance that will win the Panthers a Lombardi Trophy if it can be replicated again.

"We obviously didn’t want to score zero points so we’ve got to do better than that," Olsen said of the final two quarters. "But a 31-point lead with our team in one half? I’ll take our chances."