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Panthers build 31-0 lead, hold on to beat Seahawks 31-24

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Panthers build 31-0 lead, hold on to beat Seahawks 31-24

By BARRY WILNER

AP Pro Football Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- If the Carolina Panthers win their first NFL championship, they can credit the lesson they learned from the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

Playoff games are never truly over until that final gun.

Emphatically backing up their superb regular season with one of the most dominating halves in football history, the Panthers then hung on in the face of a furious Seahawks rally before surviving 31-24.

The Panthers have won 12 straight home games, and next Sunday, Carolina (16-1) hosts Arizona (14-3) for a trip to the Super Bowl.

"Man, it was like a bend, but don't break. It was really excruciating to watch," All-Pro quarterback Cam Newton said. "It was a tale of two halves and we've got to be better than that."

Jonathan Stewart, returning from a foot injury, scored two touchdowns after jumpstarting the Panthers with a 59-yard sprint on their first play. Newton threw for a touchdown and fellow All-Pro Luke Kuechly ran in an early interception for a score as Carolina built a 31-0 lead.

Seattle (11-7), showing its pedigree as two-time NFC champs, climbed back within seven points.

The Seahawks got two touchdowns in the first 7:20 of the third quarter. Finally with time to throw, Russell Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse for a 13-yard score and rookie Tyler Lockett for 33 yards, making it 31-14 -- and making the full house at Bank of America Stadium unnerved.

When the Seahawks succeeded on a fake punt from their 23, an epic comeback seemed possible. That drive stalled, but with Carolina's offense sputtering, Seattle later got closer on Kearse's 3-yard catch of a jump ball against All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman.

With Newton waving the crowd into frenzied cheers on the sideline, the Panthers' defense couldn't stop a 60-yard drive capped by Steven Hauschka's 36-yard field goal with 1:12 remaining.

At 31-24, All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis hauled in Hauschka's onside kick -- and Charlotte could breathe again.

"We were conservative, but at the end of the day, you have to trust coaching," Newton said.

This will be the Panthers' fourth trip to the NFC championship game, and their first time as host.

Carolina, which scored an NFL-best 500 points this season, stormed into the lead thanks to Stewart. He burst through the middle on the first snap and nearly outran everyone, getting tackled at the Seattle 16 by Richard Sherman. Three plays later -- and after the Panthers recovered a fumble by backup running back Cameron Artis-Payne at the 8 -- Stewart surged into the end zone.

His return from a foot injury that cost him three games was far more distinguished than Marshawn Lynch's comeback from a two-month absence (abdominal surgery). Lynch, who finished with 20 yards on six carries, was nailed in the backfield for a 3-yard loss on his first touch, then turned around late for Wilson's pass over the middle under pressure from Kawann Short.

Kuechly was far more alert, grabbing the interception and sprinting 14 yards to make it 14-0 only 3 1/2 minutes in.

The scoring barrage continued as the Panthers outgained the Seahawks 155 yards to 25 and had eight first downs to one in the opening quarter. And on the second play of the second period, Stewart leaped in from the 1 -- that extended Carolina's string of 100-yard rushing games to 28 and made it 21-0.

Stewart finished with 106 yards on 19 carries.

Wilson was picked off under relentless pressure again, this time by Cortland Finnegan at the Seattle 29, on the next play from scrimmage, and Graham Gano's 48-yard field goal made it 24-0.

Carolina seemed headed to the biggest halftime lead in any playoff game -- Buffalo was up 41-3 on Oakland in 1991 -- when Greg Olsen made a spectacular 19-yard reaching catch over double coverage with 6:26 remaining for a 31-0 edge.

But that ended the onslaught, and the Seahawks missed a 55-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the half, then meekly trotted off the field.

The Seahawks who returned for the second half were an entirely different team, energetic and efficient. Wilson, who was sacked five times, made some big throws, particularly to Kearse, who has 11 catches for 110 yards. Wilson went 31 for 48 for 366 yards, but the early turnovers -- Seattle had an NFC-low 16 in the regular season -- and spotty defense were too much to overcome.

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Need to Know: Five Redskins who must step up in 2018

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Need to Know: Five Redskins who must step up in 2018

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, February 25, 17 days before NFL free agency starts.

I’m out this week so I’ll be re-posting some of the best and most popular articles of the past few months. Some may have slightly dated information but the major points in the posts still stand. Thanks for reading, as always.

Five Redskins who will have to step up in 2018

Originally published 12/26/17

WR Josh Doctson—This list is in no particular order but if it was, Doctson would be right here at the top. The watchword for Doctson is consistency. He makes some incredible catches and then there are throws that he drops or doesn’t quite seem to make enough of an effort to catch. There is promise there. The first-round pick has shown his ability and his teammates say he has a chance to be elite. But the potential must translate into production on the field, week in and week out.  

RB Samaje Perine—There is plenty of chatter about the Redskins’ need to sign or draft a top running back. But a look at this team’s recent history tells us that they are unlikely to invest major assets in the position. That means that Perine, a fourth-round pick in 2017, will have to become a more consistent runner. It’s not all his fault that he hasn’t done much since he had back-to-back 100-yard games in Weeks 11-12; tough defense, offensive line issues, and game score situations have slowed his production. But he needs to be consistently productive in 2018 no matter who he lines up against.

CB Josh Norman—Unless he gets a pick against the Giants, he will go through the year without any interceptions. Sure, they don’t throw his way all that often and INT’s don’t give you the complete picture of his play. But a CB taking up $20 million in cap room needs to get a couple of picks almost by sheer accident. Norman battled some injury problems and if he wants to justify the final two years and $23 million of salary remaining on his contract, his age 30 2018 season needs to be more impactful.

OLB Preston Smith—The third-year player started strong, with at least half a sack in the first five games. And he’s finishing strong, with three sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble in the last two games. But in between, he had a total of just half a sack in eight games. This follows the pattern he displayed his first two years in the league of being dominant in some games and invisible in others. If he can develop some consistency in his 2018 contract year, he could cash in huge in free agency the following year.

Head coach Jay Gruden—Normally I only include players on lists like this one but if Gruden doesn’t do something to get the Redskins out of their near-.500 rut then nothing else will matter. He needs to change up something, whether it’s pushing the players hard in training camp or perhaps fine tuning his friendly approach to the players. Sure, better luck regarding injuries and a schedule that right now appears to be a bit less challenging will help. But Gruden needs to look at what he can change, too.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

Timeline  

Days until:

—NFL Combine (3/1) 4
—NFL Draft (4/26) 60
—2018 NFL season starts (9/9) 196

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Need to Know: The five highest-paid 2018 Redskins

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Need to Know: The five highest-paid 2018 Redskins

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, February 24, 18 days before NFL free agency starts.

I’m out this week so I’ll be re-posting some of the best and most popular articles of the past few months. Some may have slightly dated information but the major points in the posts still stand. Thanks for reading, as always.

The five highest-paid Redskins in 2018

Originally published 1/12/18

This is how the five highest-paid Redskins per their 2018 salary cap numbers stack up as of now. The list could change, of course during free agency and if a particular quarterback returns. Cap numbers via Over the Cap.

CB Josh Norman, $17 million—The Redskins do have a window which would allow them to move on from Norman. His $13.5 million salary for this year doesn’t become guaranteed until the fifth day of the league year so it would be “only” a $9 million cap charge to move on from Norman, who turned 30 in December. Don’t look for that to happen but the possibility is there.

OT Trent Williams, $13.86 million—He is one of the best left tackles in the business. Those of you out there who have advocated moving him to left guard should look at this cap number, which is way out of line for what a team can afford to pay a guard. At his pay, he needs to be playing on the edge.

OLB Ryan Kerrigan, $12.45 million—He has delivered double-digit sacks in each of the two seasons that his contract extension has been in effect. That’s good value in a league that values the ability to get to the quarterback.

TE Jordan Reed, $10.14 million—The Redskins knew that he might have a year like last year when he played in only six games when they agreed to Reed’s five-year, $50 million extension. They can live with one such season. If he has another one in 2018 they may rethink things.

G Brandon Scherff, $6.75 million—The fact that a rookie contract is No. 5 on this list is a good sign that, as of now, the Redskins’ cap is not top heavy like it was last year. The top three cap hits from Norman, Williams, and Kirk Cousins totaled $59 million, which was about 35 percent of the cap. This year the total cap numbers of the top three come to $43.3 million, 24.3 percent of the estimated $178 million salary cap.

Next five: OT Morgan Moses ($5.4 million), TE Vernon Davis ($5.33 million), DL Stacy McGee ($4.8 million), DL Terrell McClain ($4.75 million), S D.J. Swearinger ($4.33 million)

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

Timeline  

Days until:

—NFL Combine (3/1) 5
—NFL Draft (4/26) 61
—2018 NFL season starts (9/9) 197