Seahawks make the plays when it matters to advance
The postseason started as the regular season ended for the Seattle Seahawks.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The postseason began as the regular season ended for the Seattle Seahawks.
The Carolina Panthers hung around for a while, as did each of the six teams the Seahawks beat down the stretch.
But once again, when it mattered most, it was the Seahawks making the plays to pull away, defeating Carolina 31-17 at CenturyLink Field to advance to the NFC Championship Game next Sunday against either Dallas or Green Bay.
The grades reflect another happy day for the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks are now 25-2 — playoffs included — since 2012.
The Panthers wanted to force Russell Wilson to beat them with his arm. And did he ever, throwing a season-high three touchdown passes, all on plays of third-and-seven or longer.
He finished 15 of 22 for 268 yards with no interceptions and a passer rating of 149.2 that is a season high and the second-best of his career (behind only a 151.4 against Minnesota last year).
Wilson accounted for almost all of Seattle’s offense in the first half, throwing for 149 of the team’s 170 yards.
He didn’t run much, but he also didn’t really have to, going for 22 yards on seven well-timed carries.
The Panthers had an increasingly stout run defense as the season wore on and displayed that again Saturday, making it hard for the Seahawks to get their running game going to its usual level. Marshawn Lynch had just 21 yards on eight carries in the first half. But as so often happens, Lynch finally got going a bit in the second half and finished with 59 as the Seahawks had exactly 100 on 28 attempts.
The Seahawks got big plays from their two most veteran receivers — Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse — for their first two scores, each time taking advantage of Carolina’s two rookie defensive backs.
Baldwin scored on a 16-yard pass in the first quarter when the Panthers blitzed and left him in a one-on-one with Panthers rookie safety Tre Boston.
In the second quarter, Kearse got behind rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere for a 63-yard touchdown pass that was the longest in Seattle postseason history. It was part of what was Kearse’s best day of the season as he finished with three catches for 129 yards.
Kearse and Baldwin caught six of the seven targets that went their way.
Luke Willson had another great game against the Panthers with four catches for 68 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave Seattle some needed separation. He also had a key third-down catch to set up that touchdown.Cooper Helfet had a tougher day, with no receptions on three targets.
While the running game never really did get to its usual level, credit Seattle for one of its better pass-blocking games of the season, particularly in picking up Carolina’s blitzes on two of the third-down plays that Wilson turned into touchdowns.
One negative — an injury to center Max Unger in the final minutes.
The Seahawks were held without a sack in the first half but their initial one came at a key time as Cliff Avril broke through to get Cam Newton for an 8-yard loss after the Panthers had reached the Seattle 41 midway through the third quarter.
Michael Bennett had another solid day and O’Brien Schofield had one of his more impactful games with three tackles and two quarterback hits.
Seattle’s linebackers early on appeared to get out of their gaps due to Carolina’s traps and misdirection runs. But the Seahawks cleaned that up in the second half.
The Panthers also appeared to get some open receivers against Seattle’s linebackers but weren’t able to take advantage enough to make it really hurt.
Bruce Irvin, who seems to like playing against Carolina, had a fourth-quarter sack moving up to rush end. And Bobby Wagner finished with nine tackles.
It was the Kam Chancellor show from start to finish, beginning with his punishing hits in the running game to his 90-yard pick-six in the fourth quarter that put a fitting stamp on the win.
Richard Sherman chipped in an early interception and should have had another, and Earl Thomas almost had a pick in the second quarter.
Carolina, though, picked on second-year cornerback Tharold Simon, who got the start at right cornerback with Byron Maxwell battling shortness of breath.
It was a game where the special teams didn’t seem to factor much other than the bizarre ending to the first half when the Panthers tried a field goal three times, finally converting on the final attempt. There was a penalty on all three, and on the first two Chancellor leapt legally over the line in an attempt to get the block. Steven Hauschka hit a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter.