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Panthers lean on early dominance to hold off 'Hawks

The Carolina Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter and withstood a spirited second-half comeback attempt by the Seattle Seahawks to advance to the NFC Championship Game with a 31-24 victory. Here's what we learned from the Panthers' win:

  1. Reminiscent of Seattle's blowout of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, the first half was a comprehensive dismantling of an inferior opponent from the opening snap, when Jonathan Stewart broke through the second level of the Seahawks' defense for a 59-yard run. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short -- the "hog mollies" targeted by general manager Dave Gettleman in the first two rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft -- took over from there, dominating the line of scrimmage and forcing Russell Wilson's pick-six to Luke Kuechly. The Panthers controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, with offensive coordinator Mike Shula and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott painting masterpieces with their scheming and play-calling.

After nearly blowing big leads against the Colts, Packers and Giants, coach Ron Rivera conceded his biggest concern was his team's ability to finish games. That was an issue again on Sunday, as Wilson tossed three second-half touchdown passes against a sleepwalking Carolina squad with one eye on the ticking clock for the final 30 minutes. The Panthers needed Thomas Davis to field an onside kick to keep the ball out of Wilson's hands with a chance to tie in the game's final minute. Rivera will be sure to drive that point home in lead-up to next week's clash with an Arizona Cardinals club that can light up the scoreboard with any in the league.

  1. The Seahawks will point to the time zone and poor footing for their slow start. The condition of the field forced many Seattle players to change cleats after the opening drive. To their credit, they did not tap out in the second half despite the 31-point halftime deficit. The story of the afternoon, though, was a dominant 15-1 Carolina team imposing its will in all facets of the game.
  1. Buoyed by that 59-yard run on the opening drive, Stewart became the first back to rush for at least 100 yards against the Seahawks' defense in 27 games. The Panthers' decision to hold their hard-charging power back out of the final three regular season games paid off, as Stewart looked as fresh as he has all season, despite tweaking his foot early in the game. Powered by an underrated offensive line, Carolina has the strongest, most consistent and most creative ground attack in the NFL, topping 100 yards in 30 consecutive games.
  1. If this was the end of the Marshawn Lynch era in Seattle, it was an anti-climactic encore. Lynch was bottled up to the tune of 20 yards on six carries. He has looked a step slower all season and had trouble making defenders miss in open space. Lynch turns 30 years old in April and carries an $11.5 million salary-cap hit for the 2016 season. The Seahawks can feel good about turning this backfield over to dynamic rookieThomas Rawls, who outplayed Lynch throughout the season.
  1. Cam Newton's mechanics lapsed a few times in an unproductive second half, but he missed just six throws all day. His 19-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass to Greg Olsen was a textbook example of throwing a receiver open in cramped quarters. Newton's ball placement was impeccable on the throw, allowing Olsen to make a brilliant catch. The most improved passer in the NFL this season, Newton has 27 touchdowns versus three interceptions since Week 9.
  1. For the second time in the past month, the Seahawks never held a lead at any point in the game. Prior to December, Wilson had enjoyed a lead in every one of his 70 career starts. Wilson missed several throws and held the ball too long in this one. The story of the season, though, was his maturation as one of the NFL's most efficient pocket passers. Seattle's aerial attack is in better shape going forward than at any point since Wilson was drafted.
  1. The Panthers will make their first conference title game appearance since 2005. Next week will mark the third time Carolina and Arizona have squared off in the postseason, including last year's Panthers victory over a Cardinals team held hostage by third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley. The Seahawks exposed Cortland Finnegan as a liability in coverage and tackling on Sunday. Expect Carson Palmer to attack him with Larry Fitzgerald next weekend.
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