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CHARLOTTE, N.C. —The Carolina Panthers playoff push started with a bang!
Running back Jonathan Stewart returned to the Carolina lineup for the first time in three games and made his presence felt immediately.
Stewart ripped off a 59 yard run on the first play from scrimmage. Three plays later he was in the end zone and the Panthers had a quick 7-0 lead over the Seahawks.
Carolina’s defense also got off to a fast start. With Seattle buried deep in their own end, Russell Wilson threw an interception to Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. He returned the pick 14 yards for Carolina’s second touchdown of the game. Less than four minutes into the game, the Panthers built a 14-0 lead over Seattle.
The second quarter started much like the first, Stewart scored his second touchdown of the day on a diving play into the end zone. A stunned Seattle squad found themselves down 21-0 in the early stages of the second quarter.
Kicker Graham Gano would tack on a field goal to push the lead to 24-0 with a bulk of the game left to play.
Carolina just kept pouring it on. Cam Newton’s second quarter touchdown pass pushed the Panthers lead to 31-0.
Seattle finally gained some traction in the game when Wilson found Jermaine Kearse for the Seahawks first score of the game. The quick drive trimmed the Carolina lead to 31-7.
Seattle inched a little closer to Carolina when Wilson tossed his second touchdown of the third quarter. His high arching pass found Tyler Lockett and cut the Panthers lead to 31-14.
The Seahawks made it a two score game when Kearse grabbed his second touchdown reception of the game. Carolina was clinging to a 31-21 lead late into the fourth quarter.
Seattle managed to get a little closer with a late fourth quarter field goal but they failed to recover the onside kick and Carolina was able to run out the clock to secure a 31-24 win.
The Panthers advanced to the NFC Championship game where they will play the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 6:30 PM.
NFC Championship game look ahead:
The top-seeded Panthers (16-1) will host the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl. The Cardinals (14-3) beat the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in overtime on Saturday night.
It is Carolina’s fourth appearance in the NFC title game and first since 2005.
The Panthers and Cardinals have not played this season.
This will be the third time since 2008 the Cardinals have visited the Panthers in a playoff game. In 2008, the Cardinals upset the No. 2-seeded Panthers 33-13 in the divisional playoffs en route to their only Super Bowl appearance.
The Panthers defeated the Cardinals at home 27-16 in the wild card round last season.