SEATTLE — This time Russell Wilson did it with his arm, passing the Seattle Seahawks into the NFC Championship Game for the second straight year with a big assist from Kam Chancellor.
The Seahawks are one step closer to defending their Super Bowl title.
Wilson threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns, Chancellor returned an interception 90 yards for a TD midway through the fourth quarter and the Seahawks beat the Carolina Panthers 31-17 on Saturday night in an NFC divisional playoff game.
Wilson was nearly flawless in one of the best playoff performances of his young career. He took shots downfield and was hard to stop on third downs.
Wilson threw a 16-yard touchdown to Doug Baldwin in the first quarter, found Jermaine Kearse for a 63-yard TD in the second quarter and capped his night with a 25-yard strike to Luke Willson with 10:26 remaining that gave Seattle a 24-10 lead.
But the capper was still to come, from the most impressive athlete on the field.
“I don’t know if a strong safety can have a better game than Kam did tonight,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
Chancellor had wowed everyone by twice jumping over the Carolina offensive line on a pair of Graham Gano field goal attempts at the end of the first half. And he showed that he’s a pretty good safety in coverage, too.
With Carolina driving and trying to cut Seattle’s 14-point lead in half, Chancellor anticipated Newton’s throw. He jumped in front of Ed Dickson and returned his third career postseason interception for a touchdown.
It was the longest touchdown in Seattle’s postseason history, topping Percy Harvin’s 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in last season’s Super Bowl.
“It felt awesome. It felt like preparation. It felt like everything I worked all week for,” Chancellor said. “That was my first return of my career and it felt good.”
The Seahawks (13-4) never trailed and became the first defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game the following season since New England in January 2006.
Since that Patriots victory, three defending champions have earned byes only to lose in the divisional round, the last being Green Bay in the 2011 playoffs.
Seattle will host either Green Bay or Dallas next Sunday for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Cam Newton threw a pair of touchdowns to Kelvin Benjamin, but Carolina (8-9-1) couldn’t overcome three turnovers, two of which the Seahawks turned into touchdowns.
After knocking off Arizona in the wild-card round last week, Carolina was trying to be the first team to reach a conference championship game after having a losing record in the regular season.
Much like the previous three regular-season games between the two teams, Carolina made it difficult on Seattle. The best running team in the NFL this season was held to 100 yards rushing by the Panthers defense.
Marshawn Lynch was mostly a non-factor aside from a 25-yard run in the third quarter that helped set up Steven Hauschka’s 37-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But Wilson was outstanding, especially on third down. All three of his touchdown throws came on third-and-long situations. Baldwin beat safety Tre Boston on a double move on third-and-9 on his TD catch in the first quarter.
Kearse got free on his TD reception on a third-and-7. And Willson’s catch-and-run TD came on a third-and-10.
And for good measure, Wilson hit Kearse for 33 yards to the Carolina 14 with 2 minutes left, took three knees and moved on to the NFC title game.
Wilson finished with a passer rating of 149.2, the second-highest for any game in his career.
Newton played well, but turnovers were the Panthers’ undoing. Newton finished 23 of 36 for 246 yards and added 37 yards rushing. Jonathan Stewart had been a key to the Panthers’ late-season surge, and had 70 yards on 13 carries.
Newton got away with testing All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman in the first quarter and watching Sherman dance away with his first career postseason interception.
But Seattle took the lead after Carolina’s second turnover of the first quarter. Michael Bennett disrupted the handoff between Newton and Stewart and Tony McDaniel fell on the loose ball at the Carolina 28.
Earl Thomas nearly intercepted Newton at the Seattle 1 late in the second quarter, only to have the call overturned on replay.