CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They laughed in training camp when Thomas Davis lined up there. And they laughed again in Saturday’s practice when he still was in the same spot.
A linebacker? As the hands guy on the onside kick team?
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The Panthers are laughing no more. At least not at Davis.
“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, a Pro Bowl linebacker, made the special teams play of the game by securing the tricky kick to 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 will host the No. 2 Cardinals on Sunday for a ticket to Super Bowl 50.
That the game came down to such a late pivotal moment was surprising, given Carolina’s dominance in the first half. The Panthers led 14-0 after only 3:22 and brought a 31-0 lead into the second half, but Seattle responded by scoring 24 unanswered points, capped by a 36-yard field goal with 1:12 remaining that made it a one-possession game.
At that point, it was clear what the Seahawks would do, because they did it a year ago in almost the exact same 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 Packers rookie tight end Brandon Bostick a household name for all the wrong reasons after fumbling 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 Oilers 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 threw a 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. That made it 31-21 with 6:04 remaining.
Wilson’s third TD pass 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?” he 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 late in the first half.
Down 31-0, Pete Carroll elected to try to convert a fourth-and-5 from the Carolina 18 and Seattle came up short, thanks to a stop-in-the-tracks tackle by safety Roman Harper. 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,” 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 that have led some to doubt 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 and Kuechly’s 14-yard pick-6 as Carolina went ahead 14-0 in the first 3:22 — also helped silence the doubters.
“It was like that throughout the year,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “ ‘Oh, they’re undefeated through 14 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 news conference, he did so with just one word: