CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Panthers have one more game to go in their magical season — and this one’s for the NFL’s biggest prize.
Carolina, led by MVP candidate Cam Newton, rolled over the Cardinals, 49-15, Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium in the NFC Championship Game.
Newton threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for two more scores as Carolina now moves on to Santa Clara, Calif., in two weeks for Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.
There, the Panthers will face the Denver Broncos, a 20-18 winner over defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game earlier Sunday.
“We’re not done yet,” said Newton as “M-V-P” chants reverberated through the stadium. “We did what a lot of people said we couldn’t do.”
Carolina will make its second appearance in the Super Bowl, and its first since 2004, when the Panthers lost to the Patriots, 32-29, in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Four times this season, Carolina has raced out to big leads, then had to hold off second-half rallies: against the Colts, Green Bay Packers and Giants in the regular season; and the Seahawks in last week’s NFC divisional playoff game.
No such problems Sunday against the Cardinals. The Panthers led 17-0 by the end of the first quarter and were up by 17 points at the half, then kept up the scoring in the second half.
“Obviously, this has been a special year, both individually [for Newton] and collectively as a team,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “We got off to a good start, and it’s just rolled. We’ve got a group of guys who understand their roles, and came together collectively to form a pretty good product.
“This is as fun as it gets, running around that stadium holding up that trophy. It’s a special moment right now. We’re going to enjoy this right now. This was a big game, but in two weeks, it’s the biggest.”
Meanwhile, Carolina’s defense repeatedly and continually put pressure on Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer, forcing him into three of the Cardinals’ four first-half turnovers. He had six of the the Cardinals’ seven turnovers.
Palmer was sacked three times (twice in the first half), fumbling twice, and threw four interceptions. His third pick was returned 22 yards for a score by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly with 5:11 remaining in the game.
Arizona’s Patrick Peterson also muffed a punt return in the second quarter, setting up Carolina’s third touchdown of the half.
The Cardinals only got their offense — ranked second in the NFL — going twice.
David Johnson capped a 10-play, 79-yard drive with his 1-yard TD run with 5:44 left in the second quarter. Palmer then capped a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a 21-yard TD pass to Darren Fells in the fourth quarter.
Palmer finished wth 235 passing yards, completing 23 of 40 attempts. Johnson had nine catches for 68 yards, while Palmer’s three favorite targets — Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown — combined for nine catches for 90 yards.
Johnson also ran for 60 yards on 15 carries.
“We’ve been doing this all year,” said Panthers safety Kurt Coleman, who had two interceptions in the win. “I had the interceptions, but I didn’t do it alone. The [defensive line] had a great rush, and they had two forced fumbles.
“It’s a blessing — it’s something I’ve been working toward my whole career. This is where you want to get to. I’m enjoying this, but the work is unfinished. Our vision is not just to get there, but to win it.”
Meanwhile, Newton was guiding the Panthers’ offense to scores on their first three possessions of the first quarter, and a 24-7 halftime lead.
Olsen and Philly Brown each had 113 receiving yards for Carolina, with Brown hauling in an 86-yard touchdown late in the first quarter that staked the Panthers to a 17-0 lead.
Newton — named the NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America earlier this week — also threw a 5-yard TD pass to rookie Devin Funchess in the fourth quarter. He finished 19-for-28 with one interception.
Ted Ginn Jr. — who played for the Cardinals last season — had a 22-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and a 32-yard punt return earlier in the period. Graham Gano also had two field goals, of 45 and 21 yards.
Newton had 47 yards rushing, with TD runs of 1 and 12 yards, while Jonathan Stewart added 83 yards on 19 carries. That gave Carolina 152 rushing yards, the 31st consecutive game (including playoff games) that the Panthers have ran for 100 or more yards.