(Reuters) - The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks beat the Carolina Panthers 31-17 on Saturday, putting them one win away from a return trip to the NFL’s championship game.
The top-seeded Seahawks, who are trying to become the NFL’s first repeat champion in 10 years, used a suffocating defense and explosive fourth quarter to put what had been a close game out of reach.
“The guys played really hard tonight and played a really good tough, physical game,” Seattle head coach Pete Carroll told reporters. “Our guys hung in there tough and kept the score down and allowed for some guys to make things happen.”
With the victory, Seattle are the first defending Super Bowl champion to win a post-season game the following season since the 2005 New England Patriots.
Seattle will next host the winner of Sunday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game on Jan. 18.
The Seahawks’ Russell Wilson completed 15-of-22 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns, including a team post-season record 63-yard scoring pass to Jermaine Kearse in the second quarter.
Kearse made a spectacular one-handed catch before out-running the Panthers defense and diving for the pylon at the left corner of the end zone for a 14-7 lead before Carolina responded with a field goal on the final play of the half.
Following a scoreless third quarter the teams looked headed for a tense finish until Seattle erupted for 17 consecutive points in a nine-minute span.
After a Steven Hauschka field goal early, the Seahawks added to their lead when Wilson, facing a third-and-10 at the Carolina 25-yard line, connected with Luke Willson for a touchdown to build a 14-point lead.
Seattle put the game out of reach when Kam Chancellor stepped in front on a Cam Newton pass and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown that sparked wild celebrations at CenturyLink Field.
“It was really an extraordinary night,” said Carroll. “The support and the backing and just the noise and craziness in the stadium is just extraordinary and makes it so much fun to be a part of.”
Fourth-year quarterback Newton, who dropped to 0-4 in his career against Seattle, completed 23-of-36 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns but was undone by a two interceptions and a lost fumble.
Four plays after a Newton fumble in the first quarter that gave Seattle the ball at the Carolina 28-yard line, Wilson found Doug Baldwin on a 16-yard pass for a 7-0 lead.
The Panthers drew even six minutes into the second quarter when Newton capped an impressive 14-play, 79-yard drive with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin.
“The difference was just missed opportunities,” Newton said.
“When you are playing a great defense you just got to take what they give you and a lot of times I was kind of overlooking the play that needed to be made and instead tried to make the bigger play.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Gene Cherry and John O'Brien