The right of passage for a successful NFL team goes through Seattle.
All the dabbing, sideline karaoke of "Sweet Caroline," and * boy they're good even without Kelvin Benjamin* talk did not begin for the Panthers until they pulled off a road win in the Pacific Northwest. This is nothing new. Despite their legendary while still active status, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had to outlast these Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX to win their first Lombardi Trophy in a decade. But it's not just the Cam Newtons' of the world, or the Evil Empire for that matter, that needed the 12's proverbial stamp of approval.
Look no further than Carolina's opponent for the NFC crown. No one bought into Bruce Arians' Cardinals -- a team that hadn't done diddley poo since the mid 1970s, and even then not much -- until they walked into Century Link Field and beat Seattle 17-10 in 2013. This came one year after falling 58-0 there. When Carson Palmer and company did it again in this season, analysts were saying Arizona was suddenly a Super Bowl team.
In 2014 the upstart team was Dallas. The Cowboys came out of nowhere to finish 12-4, riding a stout offensive line that paved the way for the league's leading rusher, and the rebirth of one Tony Romo. Even though Romo had always been a fantastic player, and the Dallas front wall was filled with first round draft picks, who was paying attention until they bested the Seahawks at their place? In fact, that was No. 2 on our Top 20 Games list for that season.
The Panthers bested Green Bay. The Cowboys, too. Yet, the day they became for real in league observers' eyes was the afternoon they took down Pete Carroll's two-time defending NFC Champion Seahawks in their own backyard. Nevermind that it was a gritty affair, and more than worthy of being Our Second Top Game of 2015. It might have been a passing of the torch, as all opponents -- including these Seahawks -- massively failed at Carolina this season (SEE: Palmer, NFC Championship). All told, teams went 0-10 in Charlotte, with the Panthers winning by an average score of 34.4 to 17.5. Read that stat line again.
Carolina's win in Seattle was a signal that there was a new boss in the NFC.
Drive of the Game
The Panthers were down 20-7, then 23-14, before managing to claw their way to 23-20. After Seattle punter John Ryan boomed a 68-yarder Carolina had the ball at its own 20-yard line with two minutes and change to play.
The franchise quarterback completed six passes in a row (we're not counting spiking the ball to save time) in moving the offense 80 yards down the field. He did it attacking the strength of the top defense over the last four years -- its secondary -- to the most derided group of receivers in the league. Jonathan Stewart caught the first ball. Then Ted Ginn, Jr. held on. Ed Dickson was Newton's next target. Rookie Devin Funchess contributed. Then 75-year-old Jerricho Cotchery caught a pass to put the Panthers at the Seahawk 26.
Ginn. Dickson. Funchess. Cotchery. The nucleus of an 0-13 fantasy team.
After spiking the ball, there were 36 ticks on the clock. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula sent in a play that called for Greg Olsen to run a nine route straight up the seam, all the way into the endzone. Why not take a shot here? It's much easier to try here compared to when you get closer to the goal and the field gets squeezed.
Watching the play unfold on TV, you could see Newton calmly set up, and loft the ball deep. Why is Cam, king of the rocketball, lofting it!? Surely no one is that open. Olsen was. Miscommunication in the Seattle secondary left the Panthers tight end running room, and his quarterback laid it right in there. It was, in two words, totally awesome.
From the Box Score
Don't call him sexy, call Jonathan Stewarteffective. Although it might not wow you, Stewart's 20 carries for 78 yards in this game were huge. He was a key ingredient of the Panthers outmuscling the Seahawks, particularly in the red zone. Both Stewart's touchdown runs came in the second half with Carolina dearly needing sixes, not threes.
This also marked the first of eight straight games in which Stewart carried the football at least 20 times. When Stewart got hurt in Atlanta in Week 15, the streak stopped. Ditto the Panthers' unbeaten streak. Don't misunderstand, Newton certainly deserved the league MVP. But there was an underrated MVP on this outfit, named J-Stew. He fell just short of 1,000 yards, despite playing in only 12.5 games.
Historical Symmetry? Call it déjà vu symmetry.
Olsen managed another important touchdown, running up the seam, against these very Seahawks, three months later in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The only difference was that he was on the left side of the formation. Well, that and the coverage was in the right place this time.
Newton threw the ball where only Olsen could get it and his Pro Bowl tight end made an all-world catch.
Why This Game is No. 2
Yet, Panthers at Seahawks was everything we wanted it to be. A tough, hard-nosed battle between the NFC's bully in Seattle and the little-engine-that-could Panthers. Of course, after Carolina won, no one considered them an underdog anymore. Moreover, the manner in which they pulled it off -- on a Newton-to-Olsen beauty to complete a two-score comeback -- made our second top game look the every bit the part.