NFL playoffs: Seahawks run out of miracles as Panthers set up Cardinals date

Seattle Seahawks fans celebrating victory in the 2014 NFC Championship game

Thomas Davis leaped and reached for the ball. He was upended by Derrick Coleman, but held on to the ball as he hit the ground. It was an odd way to clinch the game after leading 31-0 at half-time, but it doesn’t really matter for the Carolina Panthers.

Carolina jumped out to a two-touchdown lead not four minutes into the game, led 31-0 at half-time lead and held off a furious comeback attempt by the Seattle Seahawks to win, 31-24. The 16-1 Panthers host the 14-3 Arizona Cardinals next weekend in the NFC Championship Game.

Jonathan Stewart, returning four weeks after a foot injury, rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Cam Newton went 16-of-22 for 161 yards and a touchdown in the win. Both players did most of their damage in the first half.

Seattle got pretty close to completing a comeback from the deep half-time deficit. Russell Wilson finished the game 31-for-48 for 366 yards and three touchdowns. Marshawn Lynch, like Stewart returning from injury, had just six carries for 20 yards. (Wilson led Seahawks rushers with 32 yards.) Once Seattle found themselves in a huge hole, they had to resort to the air for pretty much the entire game.

The Seahawks scored on their first two possessions of the second half to cut it to a 17-point deficit. Russell Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett for scores on those two drives, then lifted a pretty pass to Kearse in the end zone to cut it to 31-21 with 6:04 remaining. Seattle got the ball one more time, and settled for a field goal with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

But Wilson’s two first-half interceptions led to 10 Panthers points, and Seattle could not come back. The first half was a complete disaster. The first play from scrimmage of the game was a 59-yard run by the Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart, and the last play of the half was a missed 55-yard field goal by Seattle’s Steven Hauschka. In between, the Panthers scored 31 points. The 31-0 scoreline was the third-largest halftime deficit in Seahawks history.

The Seahawks nearly caught a break the play after Stewart’s long run when Michael Bennett stripped the ball away from Cameron Artis-Payne. But Mike Tolbert fell on it, and Stewart scored from five yards out two plays later for the 7-0 lead. Two plays from scrimmage after that, it was 14-0 when Luke Kuechly intercepted a Wilson pass and ran it back for a touchdown.

Seattle’s offensive line was one of the big reasons for the huge half-time deficit. Wilson’s fourth pass of the game was an interception, too, when Mario Addison hit him as he threw and Cortland Finnegan picked him off. That led to a field goal.

The Panthers defense sacked Wilson five times. Following the field goal, Carolina’s Tre Boston sacked Wilson for an eight-yard loss on second down. That led to a Seattle punt from their own 12. Carolina only had to drive 54 yards for their fourth touchdown of the first half and a 31-0 lead. Struggling with constant pressure, Wilson went 10-for-77 for 111 yards and those two picks in the first half.

The Seahawks offensive line has been a problem all season. Even earlier, really. Check this NFL.com headline: “Seahawks offensive line issues.” That’s from Seattle’s second preseason game. “We’re all a little bit frustrated with [the offense],” Pete Carroll said over the summer. “I’m a little frustrated by it, but I’m not worried about it. Just want to get the offensive linemen enough reps together so that they grow and make the calls and be really sharp.”

They weren’t sharp. By October, Seahawks blog Field Gulls was writing, “Is the Seahawks offensive line even worse than you think it is?” The Seahawks were 2-2 at that point, then dropped their next two games to fall to 2-4. The Seahawks have had offensive line problems for pretty much all of Pete Carroll’s tenure as head coach, but their struggles were no more apparent than this season. But things turned around: Patrick Lewis went in at center, and the headlines got better. “Improved offensive line play might save Seahawks’ season,” for example.

Seattle’s offensive line struggled against the blitz the first time the teams met — a 27-23 Panthers win — but the line had been much better from Week 11 on. On Sunday, though, Carolina’s defensive front seven dominated the first half and staked the Panthers to such a big lead even Seattle’s stellar second half couldn’t overcome it.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dan McQuade, for theguardian.com on Sunday 17th January 2016 21.49 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010