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Monday, January 16, 2006 - Page updated at 04:45 PM

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Steve Kelley

Formidable Panthers at home on the road

Seattle Times staff columnist

They are Team Travel. They take the advantage out of the home field. They win in January in the most difficult stadiums and at the most desperate times of the year.

The Carolina Panthers win in the dome in St. Louis. They win in the din in Philadelphia. They shut out the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. And they beat the Bears in the wind in Chicago.

The Panthers have turned road rage into an art form. They are at home, away from home.

The home-field edge should mean everything this month. It should mean crowd noises louder than a night with Motley Crue. It should mean audibles that are missed. And snafus in the snap counts.

The home field should be that extra spark that lifts teams in the darkening gut-clutching moments of a sudden-death afternoon.

The home field is where the 12th man plays. It should be the difference.

But for the Panthers, there's no place like away-from-home. There's nothing like a long plane ride and a hostile crowd to bring out the best in them. Nothing like those bright, white road uniforms with the Carolina blue trim to make them feel just ornery enough.

Willie Nelson should sing their theme song.

It's January and the Carolina Panthers are on the road again. And for the Seahawks, a team trying to make it to the first Super Bowl in franchise history, that's bad news.

Carolina can't be beaten with a lot of noise or rain or taunts. It can win on fake grass or on the plain, painted dirt of Chicago's Soldier Field.

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In their last two playoff trips the Panthers have won four straight games on the other team's home field. They beat the Rams and Philadelphia on the way to the Super Bowl in 2004. They've beaten the Giants and Chicago this year.

They have played three games this month, all on the road, and have outscored the opposition 96-32. They scored 44 points in the Georgia Dome and beat the Falcons by 30 on the last day of the regular season.

In August, they were the quirky choice to make it to Super Bowl XL. Now they are the most dangerous team that has come to Seattle this season. Carolina is the final obstacle. The Panthers are roadproof. They won't be intimidated by the 12th-man howls whipping through their ear holes. Bring on the noise. Bring on the funk. For Carolina it's all as sweet as a James Taylor ballad.

This team travels better than Caesar's army. It will hit town late this week with all the courteousness of the Huns. The Panthers won't swoon even as the thunder rises ominously and the play clock ticks threateningly on Sunday.

This will be a Sunday in late January like none this city has ever experienced. It is a day Seattle has waited for since 1977. A chance to play a game this big, against a team this good, with the stakes this high.

The Seahawks can't play against Carolina like they played against Washington on Saturday. They can't squander early opportunities. They can't give the Panthers three turnovers.

They can't muff punts. Bobby Engram should replace Jimmy Williams as the Hawks' punt returner on Sunday. Williams' muff in the second quarter took field position away from the Seahawks and gave Washington a 3-0 lead.

Just put Engram back there against Carolina. Tell him to fair catch every punt he sees and take the melodrama out of hang time.

The Panthers are too deadly for gifts. They have the third-best defense in the league. They have a quarterback, Jake Delhomme, who was built for this month.

And they have wide receiver Steve Smith, a one-man offense, who on Sunday, against the Chicago Bears' lethal defense, accounted for 244 yards and two touchdowns all by himself.

Carolina is a team without weaknesses. It's a team, like the Seahawks, that absorbs its injuries.

What did you expect? You don't get the San Francisco 49ers or the Tennessee Titans in the fourth weekend of January. This Sunday will be as it should be. There are no flukes left. The two best teams in the NFC will play for the conference championship.

You'd think the Panthers should be tiring. Ready for the kill.

But this is Team Travel coming to Seattle. It isn't bothered by time zones or changing area codes.

The Panthers will demand you give them your best shot. This game will be the greatest challenge of the 12th man's career.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/stevekelley

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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