CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They laughed in training camp when Thomas Davis lined up there. And they laughed again in Saturday’s practice when he was still in the same spot. A linebacker? As the hands guy on the onside kick team?
The Panthers are laughing no more. At least not at Thomas.
“We give him some grief sometimes,” fellow linebacker Luke Kuechly said, “but when you need a play in a big game, put him in. He’s going to end up with that ball whether he’s got to claw for it or do whatever. He’s going to go get it.”
Davis, the Pro Bowl linebacker, made the special teams play of the game by securing the tricky kick to finally seal top-seeded Carolina’s 31-24 win over No. 6 Seattle in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers (16-1) will play at home again Sunday when they host the No. 2 Cardinals for a ticket to Super Bowl 50.
That the game even came down to such a late pivotal moment was surprising given Carolina’s dominance in the first half, taking a 31-0 lead into the break. But Seattle scored 24 unanswered points in the second half, capped by a field goal with 1:12 remaining to make it a one-possession game. At that point, it was clear what the Seahawks would do — because they had done it a year ago in almost the same exact situation.
“We talked about what happened to Green Bay last year when they played them [in the NFC title game], and we didn’t want the same outcome for us,” Davis said of the play that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl and made rookie tight end Brandon Bostick a household name for all the wrong reasons, fumbling the ball when he should have been blocking.
This kick by Steven Hauschka was eerily similar. Same side of the field. Same high bounce. Different result.
“Before you go on the field, you talk about those things,” Davis said. “Everybody has to do their job. The guys up front have to do their job. You have to let the guy who is back there recover the ball. We got a high bounce and I came away with it.”
The Panthers were almost more like the 1992 Oilers than the 2014 Packers. That team gave up a 32-point lead to the Bills in the most epic playoff collapse in NFL history. For a while, it seemed as if Carolina was heading that way as Seattle chipped away at the lead and the crowd began to share a collective gulp.
“There were lots of players with their butts tight,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “Coaches with their butts tight. Fans with their butts tight. But we kept playing.”
Russell Wilson’s remarkable 3-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Jermaine Kearse after rolling right, then left, then right again and floating the ball up while taking a hit, made it 31-21 with 6:04 remaining. It was Wilson’s third touchdown pass of the game and it was just out of reach of cornerback Josh Norman, who said he jumped a hair too early.
But even then, Norman said he wasn’t worried.
“Why? What for?” Norman said. “We had 31 points. We had to tighten some things up, some nuts and bolts, and we did that. They kicked that field goal. You want to finish a game that’s silly.”
Holding Seattle to the field goal with 1:12 remaining was huge, keeping the seven-point advantage. In retrospect, so were the field-goal options for the Seahawks at the end of the first half. Down 31-0, Pete Carroll elected to try to convert a fourth-and-5 from the Carolina 18 that came up short thanks to a stop-in-the-tracks tackle by safety Roman Harper. And then Hauschka was short on a 55-yard attempt as time expired in the half.
“We made a mess of it in the first half, just couldn’t get started well,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We started so miserably and they took advantage of it . . . Sometimes halftime is the best thing that can happen to us. None of us are surprised that is what happened in the second half. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.”
The Panthers have lost only once this season, but they’ve had a few close calls like this one which have led to some doubting the authenticity of their superb record. A win, no matter how, over the NFC representative in the past two Super Bowls goes a long way toward dispelling that thinking. The flashes of dominance that led to it — Jonathan Stewart’s 59-yard run on the first snap of the game, a pick-six by Kuechly that gave Carolina a 14-0 edge in the first 3:22 of the game — also helped silence the doubters.
“It was like that throughout the year,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “’Oh, they’re undefeated [through 15 games], but they haven’t played anybody.’ This and that. This pretty much puts a stamp on the type of team we are.”
For others, though, it wasn’t about making a statement or quieting critics. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said it’s just about playing “Carolina football.”
When Newton was asked to define that phrase from the former Jets receiver — Carolina football — in his postgame conference, he did so with just one word: