The NFL divisional round was nothing if not interesting, but for all the Hail Mary passes and clock-management gaffes, the most unexpected events of the weekend may have taken place in Charlotte, where the Carolina Panthers smacked around the Seattle Seahawks for 30 minutes, then withstood a second-half comeback that happened so gradually it almost appeared inevitable.
It wasn't as if the Panthers grew complacent – up 31-0 at the break, Cam Newton and Co. still managed to move the chains on their first four possessions of the second half – but rather, they ran into the unyielding will of the two-time-defending NFC champions. But unlike so many opponents the Seahawks have dispatched of in recent years, Carolina found a way to break through. Or maybe Pete Carroll just ran out of rabbits to pull from his hat.
Either way, when Newton took the final knee, the scoreboard said it all: Panthers 31, Seahawks 24. And that result told you everything you needed to know about both teams.
The Panthers are now just one win away from their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, and two W's from Newton holding a much more important title than Most Valuable Player: Super Bowl champion.
Facing doubts about their 15-1 record – Carolina played one of the league's easiest schedules, and was bolstered by an 8-0 mark against the dreadful AFC South and NFC East – the NFC's Number One seed was favored by less than a field goal at home on Sunday, against a Seahawks team that only avoided elimination last weekend thanks to a chip-shot miss in Minnesota. But from the first snap of the game, the Panthers made it obvious they didn't just deserve home-field advantage; they deserved respect.
Out for the last three games of the season, running back Jonathan Stewart took the handoff from Newton on the first offensive play and rumbled for 59 yards against a Seattle defense that ranked number one against the run. Three plays later, Stewart – who became the first back to go over the 100-yard mark against the Seahawks since Jamaal Charles in 2014 – punched it in to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead with just 2:30 off the clock.
Less than a minute later, Carolina went up 14-0 after Luke Kuechly intercepted Russell Wilson and returned it for a score. It was just the second pick-six in Wilson's career; the first came in 2012 against the Panthers.
And everything kept going their way for the remainder of the first half: another interception by Wilson, another touchdown by Stewart, a touchdown from Newton to Greg Olsen, a missed field goal by Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka…Carolina was up big by intermission. And just about everybody – fans, broadcasters, my editor – said there was no way Seattle was coming back. Of course, nobody bothered to check with the Seahawks.
Undaunted, Seattle did what it always seems to do – find a way back into games. It is difficult to kill the king, after all. They scored 24 unanswered points on three touchdowns by Wilson, including two to Jermaine Kearse, and much like in their unfathomable comeback against Green Bay in the NFC championship game a year ago, the Seahawks needed to convert an onside kick in order to stay alive. But this time, they didn't get it; Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, the player who has been with the team longer than anybody, snagged Hauschka's high chopper and didn't let go.
It was almost the largest comeback since Frank Reich and the Buffalo Bills stormed back from a 35-3 deficit against the Houston Oilers in a January '93 wild-card game. But almost doesn't cut it in the playoffs. Say what you will about the Seahawks, but in a game where a lesser team would have folded, they fought until the very end – and came up one possession short. Seattle now heads into an offseason loaded with questions about its offensive line and secondary, and will be forced to make a decision about Marshawn Lynch, who is owed $11.5 million in 2016 and turns 30 in April. Was this the end of an era? How much of the band can they keep together if they want to make the second round of the playoffs for the fifth year in a row?
Carolina's immediate future is more certain: an NFC championship game showdown with the Arizona Cardinals. They've already answered queries about Cam Newton's end zone celebrations, the strength of their schedule and their depleted wide receiving corps. Against Arizona, only one question remains: "Can they do it for sixty minutes?"