CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Seattle’s comeback against the Panthers — the fourth against Carolina this season — would worry coach Ron Rivera more if it had happened against a worse team. The fact that Carolina’s 31-point lead became a 31-24 final score is a product of how good the Seattle offense is and little more, Rivera said after his Panthers advanced to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
“I’ll be honest, I get it, I understand. But shoot, we won those football games, and look who we played against,” Rivera said. “If this was someone that was 2-14 that did this to us, then I’d be really concerned. But it wasn’t. Am I concerned? Yeah.
“But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly. Let’s stay focused on what we did. We did some really good things. We made some things happen. And we won the football game.”
This season the Panthers have seen leads of 17, 23, 28 and 31 go down to one-score contests, and there’s been a common thread in all of them: Great quarterbacks. Andrew Luck (Colts), Aaron Rodgers (Packers), Eli Manning (Giants) and Russell Wilson (Seahawks) have five Super Bowl appearances among them, and all four led their respective teams in comebacks against the Panthers. Is Arizona’s Carson Palmer next?
In Sunday’s victory, the Panthers built a 31-point lead by halftime that forced Seattle to throw the ball most of the second half. But Wilson was judicious about where he threw the ball. Wilson took aim at whatever receiver was being defended by Cortland Finnegan, Kurt Coleman or Robert McClain for most of the second half. Here’s how the first series of the third quarter went: Pass to Kevin Smith for 7 yards against McClain. Pass to Doug Baldwin, covered by Coleman, for 6 yards on a Finnegan blitz. Pass to Jermaine Kearse for 9 yards in a zone between McClain and Finnegan. Touchdown pass to Kearse for 13 yards against McClain.
But it wasn’t as if the Panthers were in a prevent defense in the second half. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott still dialed up blitzes, but Wilson was savvy enough to know where the blitz was coming from and find the open receiver. He threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett when Josh Norman came on a corner blitz, leaving the speedy Lockett against Coleman in the corner of the end zone.
“That’s definitely something we can look at,” Rivera said of disguising blitzes better. “And we can look at what the calls were at that time. That’s what’s important to. Was it a timely call? I thought Sean did a nice job with it and we executed pretty well. “As I said though, look at who we faced. This guy has gone to the Super Bowl two years in a row. He’s a pretty good quarterback.”
Defensive end Mario Addison admitted that the defense may have relaxed a little bit coming out of halftime with the big lead. “For one we can’t relax,” Addison said. “I wouldn’t say it’s hard to stay focused when you have a big lead like that. We’ve got to keep our personality and keep playing the way we did in the first half.”
The offense was fighting both the Seahawks and the clock. After building such a lead the Panthers needed to ensure Seattle’s offense couldn’t get on the field to score. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula disagreed with the notion that his play-calling was conservative in the second half, and he has a point. His calls weren’t 3 yards and a cloud of dust, and Carolina avoided going three-and-out in the second half. All four second-half possessions before the onside kick recovery ended in punts, but the Panthers were able to let the clock bleed. Carolina was three-for-seven on third downs in the second half and totaled six first downs to keep the chains moving just enough.
“It’s a fine line keeping it wide open and also try to call plays that are really good that keep the clock moving,” Shula said. “They’re really good. I don’t think there’s anybody here that doesn’t think they’re really good on defense. We were fortunate enough to score a bunch of points in the first half and just a little bit off in the second half.” The Panthers have less than a week to clean it up before facing the Cardinals for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals present a relentless defense that regularly applies pressure, and a prolific passing offense. “You can’t shut everybody out 100 percent of the time all the time,” Rivera said. “And it’s those things that happen in this game. Are they something we can get better at? I believe we can. And that’s what we’re going to work on.”