January 15, 2015
Did we not know that it had to come to an end eventually?
Carolina, who finished the regular season with a losing record, essentially had been in a playoff mode since early December. They beat New Orleans, Cleveland and Atlanta to win the NFC South title then knocked off Arizona in the first round of the playoffs. During the final month of the season, the Panthers were a very opportunistic team that made a surprising entry into the NFL playoffs.
Against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, the Panthers had few opportunities. They did not take advantage of the few they had before wearing down late, as the Seahawks scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and advanced to the NFC championship game with a 31-17 victory.
The Panthers turned the ball over three times, setting up two Seattle touchdowns, while the Seahawks didn’t commit a turnover.
An underrated statistic in football is third down efficiency. And Seattle thrived on third down as quarterback Russell Wilson threw for three touchdowns, all on third downs. It made the difference.
The Seahawks never trailed and became the first defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game the following season since New England in January 2006. Am I the only one that finds that particular stat hard to believe?
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton threw a pair of touchdowns to Kelvin Benjamin, but the Panthers couldn’t overcome the turnovers. The biggest blow was Kam Chancellor’s 90-yard interception return midway through the fourth quarter that gave Seattle a 31-10 lead. Instead of a possible 24-17 game, Carolina found itself down by 21 points.
After knocking off Arizona in the wild-card round last week, Carolina was trying to be the first team to reach a conference championship game after having a losing record in the regular season.
Much like the previous three regular-season games between the two teams, Carolina made it difficult on Seattle. The best running team in the NFL this season was held to 100 yards rushing by the Panthers defense.
But Carolina’s third down defense was lacking. And I am talking third and long defense.
Wilson hit Doug Baldwin on third-and-9 on his TD catch in the first quarter. Jermaine Kearse’s 63-yard TD reception came on a third-and-7. And Luke Willson’s 25-yard catch-and-run TD was on third-and-10. Wilson finished with a passer rating of 149.2, the second-highest for any game in his career. On third down plays alone, he passed for 199 yards on third downs.
Wilson and the Seahawks will host Green Bay this weekend for the right to advance to the Super Bowl.
NFL’s Final Four
No. 2 Green Bay Packers (12-4) at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks (12-4), 3:05 p.m. ET (FOX), Sunday, January 18
Seattle beat Green Bay by 20 points in Week One. I realize that was four months ago but the Seahawks are playing their best football right now.
Seattle dismantled the Packers much like it did Carolina last week. The Seahawks turned a 10-10 tie into a convincing win behind their defense. In fact, Green Bay managed just 255 yards of offense. Most of that came in the first half as the Hawks defense eventually wore the Pack down.
Green Bay will counter this time with a new playmaker in rookie Davante Adams. He led the way Sunday for the Packers, catching eight passes for 117 yards and a touchdown in a 26-21 win over visiting Dallas. Adams, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are a talented trio of receivers for MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers to search for. If he can avoid the Seattle pass rush. And the Packers may get a better outing from runningback Eddie Lacy. The Alabama product, who finished with just 34 yards on 12 carries in the earlier trip to CenturyLink Field, also comes in hot off back-to-back 100-yard games. The big question facing Green Bay is the health of Rodgers. Will his partially torn calf muscle hamper his ability to get the ball to his playmakers?
Speaking of hot, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is quite warm. For as lethal an all-around threat as Rodgers is when he’s healthy, Wilson is a better runner and an increasingly deadly passer. Wilson threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns Saturday vs. Carolina.
The Packers will need to play their best game of the year to pull off the upset. If not, Seattle will make a return visit to the Super Bowl.
No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 1 New England Patriots (12-4), 6:40 p.m. ET (NBC), Sunday.
Much like what Seattle did to Green Bay did earlier this season, New England did to Indy back in November.
The Patriots ran the ball down the Colts’ throats en-route to a 42-20 victory. Fourth-string runningback Jonas Gray came off the pine to run for 201 yards and four touchdowns. How deep are the Pats? Gray has rarely seen the field since that Week 11 performance. New England does not need any one player, other then Tom Brady of course, to win games.
Indianapolis needs one player to have the game of his life if it has a chance on Sunday. The Colts are hoping for a changing of the guard at the quarterback position. They are hoping their signalcaller, Andrew Luck, can supplant Brady on top of the AFC quarterback list.
Luck often times has to do everything for the Colts. For instance, Indy ran the ball for just 19 yards in its loss to New England in November.
Luck will be making his first AFC title game appearance; Brady has more playoff wins than any QB in NFL history (19) and will be taking part in his ninth AFC championship on Sunday.
There will be a changing of the guard some day. Just not this year. New England will win big.
And a Seattle-New England Super Bowl could be a classic.