SEATTLE — The reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks stand two wins shy of another coronation.
Saturday night's 31-17 division-round demolition of the Carolina Panthers advanced top seed Seattle into Sunday's NFC Championship Game against Sunday's Dallas-Green Bay winner. The rout was a showcase of classic Seahawks football — a fast, takeaway defense, hard running and someone finding a way to make a play that made the biggest difference time and again on third down.
Their win was the first for a defending champion in a decade.
Three times on third-and-long, that big-play someone proved to be quarterback Russell Wilson, who found receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse running free on seam routes for a pair of first-half touchdowns. Then, Wilson sealed the deal with a 25-yard, fourth-quarter scoring strike to tight end Luke Wilson to beat a third-and-10 blitz.
When the Panthers loaded up to take away Marshawn Lynch's running, Wilson put on a passing clinic with his most efficient postseason performance yet. He completed 15 of 22 for 268 yards with three touchdowns to key the Seahawks' seventh straight win.
The dual-threat quarterback was the reason why the Seahawks look to be the most complete team in the postseason after he extended his astonishing 41-13 run as the league's winningest quarterback in his first three seasons by playing efficiently and error free.
Wilson, now 5-1 in the postseason, was on point from the start, hitting nine of his first 13 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
So go ahead, keep mocking the Seahawks receivers as pedestrian. Seattle stands two wins from becoming the first repeat champions since the 2004 New England Patriots because all Baldwin and Kearse did was play with an edge and run right past a pair of rookie defensive backs.
The 8-9-1 Panthers only the second team in league history to make the playoffs with a losing record, hung around, trailing just 14-10 at halftime. They played with a liberated sense of having nothing to lose after saving their season with a five-game win streak after a 3-8-1 start.
But Wilson and his receivers more than adjusted after cornerback Richard Sherman took up for his guys this week when he basically said to call Seattle's receivers feisty, pedestrian but just be sure to call them "champions."
On third-and-7 from his own 37, Wilson fired a perfect strike to Kearse, who had a step on rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere. Kearse caught the ball with one hand, then dove inside the left end-zone pylon for a 63-yard touchdown. The longest scoring pass in franchise postseason history put the Seahawks up 14-7 as CenturyLink Field exploded in celebration.
A fast-flow Seahawks defense intercepted Cam Newton twice, putting an exclamation point on the rout when safety Kam Chancellor returned his fourth-quarter pickoff a franchise postseason record 90 yards.