Super Bowl BoundCourtesy NFL / January 29, 2016
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CHARLOTTE – Cam Newton threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more, and linebacker Luke Kuechly and safeties Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston came up with two takeaways apiece as the Carolina Panthers claimed the final coveted spot in Super Bowl 50 with a 49-15 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.
“We were able to put ourselves in position to make plays. Our guys flew around. They hustled,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “I think this is really neat, I really do. I’m excited about the opportunity. More so than anything else, I’m excited for this organization.”
Carolina will face the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers (6:30 p.m., CBS). The Broncos won the AFC title with a 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots earlier Sunday, Jan. 24.
The Panthers dominated the early portions of the game by dominating both lines of scrimmage, and they never let up. Last week, the Panthers rolled to a 31-0 halftime lead in a Division Playoff against Seattle before holding on for a 31-24 victory. Sunday, leading 24-7 at halftime, they took the opening kickoff of the second half and kept the ball more than seven minutes before kicking a field goal.The defense – minus linebacker Thomas Davis (arm) and safety Roman Harper (eye) – then forced a three-and-out. Carolina then marched 79 yards, jumpstarted by a 39-yard reception by Ted Ginn, Jr. and finished off by Newton, runs of 11 and then 12, for the touchdown for a 34-7 lead.
“When we were getting ready to come out for the second half, I didn’t have to say anything. The players said it,” Rivera said. “Cam Newton stepped up and really challenged everybody. They took ownership.
“I like the energy they came out with.”
That applied to the beginning of the game as well, when the Panthers made a statement early in the first NFC Championship game ever hosted by the organization. Carolina’s first three drives of the game resulted in scores as the Panthers consistently controlled things along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Graham Gano got it going with a 45-yard field goal, then Ginn found the end zone on a remarkable play against his former team. After Ginn set the table with a 32-yard punt return, he scored on a reverse from the 22-yard line, when Newton faked a handoff, faked a run and pitched it back to Ginn, who eventually weaved his way all the way back across the field for the touchdown.
“I just tried to become an athlete,” Ginn said. “I got around the corner but (cornerback Justin) Bethel held me up a little bit, but that let me see the defense a little bit, and then I just continued on the journey.
“It had shut down, but Pops always told me to use my shoes, so I just tried to use my shoes, and I had two blockers on the other side and did what I could do.”
On Carolina’s next possession, facing a third-and-long from its own 14-yard line, Newton spotted Philly Brown open at the 40 versus man-to-man coverage. Brown gathered it, and then with one subtle move got past safety Rashad Johnson and sped to an 86-yard score, the longest play in Panthers postseason history.
Coleman added a second interception midway through the fourth quarter, and Newton directed an 86-yard drive capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass to rookie Devin Funchess for a 42-15 lead. On Arizona’s next offensive snap, Kuechly intercepted Palmer and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown that capped the scoring. Boston then added an interception – Palmer’s fourth and final to go with two lost fumbles.
“It’s unbelievable, to do this at home in front of this crowd,” center Ryan Kalil said. “They’ve been unbelievable all year long. They’re the best fans in the NFL, and we couldn’t be happier for them.
“We’re out there with the confetti celebrating, but when you walk by every guy, they say, ‘One more. We’ve got one more.’ We’ve got work left to do.”