Two years ago, the Carolina Panthers earned a trip to the Super Bowl by winning on one of the NFL’s toughest home fields. They find themselves in a similar situation this week.
Carolina looks to become the first team to win five straight road playoff games, and earn its second trip to the Super Bowl in three years, when it meets the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game at Qwest Field—one of the noisiest venues in the league.
The Panthers went into Philadelphia on Jan. 18, 2004, and beat the Eagles 14-3 in the NFC title game at Lincoln Financial Field before losing 32-29 to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII. This time around, they have to defeat a Seattle club that went undefeated at home in 2005 for the second time in three seasons.
“There is something our team likes about coming out of the tunnel and getting booed,” said Carolina coach John Fox, whose only loss in six playoff games was the defeat to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. “Some people like getting cheered. Our team has kind of a sick little grin on its face getting booed. I think they rally around that.”
The Panthers have exhibited that road-warrior mentality in these playoffs, beating the New York Giants 23-0 at the Meadowlands in the wild-card round and the Chicago Bears 29-21 in a divisional game last week at Soldier Field.
Including the postseason, Carolina is 8-2 away from home this season.
“It’s pretty interesting especially for me, because they yell, ‘Smith you (stink)!’ and all kinds of things,” Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith said. “I just kind of look out there and I’m like, `You’re right, I do.’
“I enjoy it because those guys know what you are capable of doing and they are trying to get you out of the game. So you look at that and smile a lot and just take it in.”
Smith stepped up against the Bears with featured running back DeShaun Foster going down with a broken right leg, finishing with 12 catches for a career-high 218 yards—the fourth-highest yardage total in playoff history—and two touchdowns.
“I’m just really utilizing my talents,” said Smith, who ended the regular season with 103 receptions, 1,563 receiving yards and 12 receiving TDs, all tops in the NFL. “They throw me the ball, my job is to catch it. If I don’t catch the ball, they will get somebody in here who will.
“If you lined up my mama over there, I got to catch it over her, too.”
Foster broke his fibula when he was tackled in the third quarter against Chicago. He’ll need surgery to repair it, but will hold off on the procedure so he can accompany the team to Seattle and play cheerleader.
He’ll probably be cheering the most for Nick Goings.
Now Carolina’s No. 1 back with Foster and Stephen Davis sidelined, Goings is familiar with the job. When the Panthers were hit hard by injuries to their running backs last season, Goings went from sixth-stringer to starter and finished the year with five 100-yard rushing games.
“Last year I had an opportunity to be able to start eight games—I gained a lot of confidence from that, a lot of experience,” Goings said. “So I feel pretty good about this.”
Jake Delhomme also played well against Chicago, finishing 24-of-33 for 319 yards and three touchdowns. He has a 108.4 passer rating in six postseason games, throwing for 1,446 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We go on the road, it’s just us,” Delhomme said. “You have to believe. It’s going to be loud, but we concentrate on our job. Coach Fox does a good job with that.”
Seattle coach Mike Holmgren does a good job of preparing his team to play at home.
The Seahawks beat the Washington Redskins 20-10 in the divisional round Saturday to improve to 22-6 at Qwest Field since the start of the 2003 season.
“I think its the loudest stadium in the NFL,” said Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas, who spent four seasons playing with the Seahawks. “They truly have a 12th man.”
Seattle also showed some resiliency after its top running back went down with an injury. Shaun Alexander, the NFL MVP who set a league single-season record with 28 TDs and led the NFL with 1,880 rushing yards, suffered a concussion against the Redskins and missed the last three-plus quarters.
Alexander, though, will play this week.
“I am feeling blessed,” he said. “I didn’t think that I would be able to heal that fast.”
Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck led Seattle to the win after Alexander departed. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 215 yards with one touchdown pass, and ran six times for 21 yards and a score as Seattle won its first playoff game since 1984.
“I don’t know if it was me. Those other guys stepped up,” Hasselbeck said. “It was really a team win today. We’ve got a great feeling in our locker room right now because we did come together. We overcame adversity.”
Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers missed practice Wednesday and Thursday because of an injured shoulder suffered against Chicago, but returned to the field Friday. Peppers, who led the team with 10 1/2 sacks this season, is listed as questionable.
Asked if he had a feeling if Peppers would play on Sunday, Fox revealed nothing, “I do, but I’m not willing to share it.”
Seattle is also dealing with injuries to key players.
Wide receivers Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram, and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard all returned to practice on Friday after sitting out two days. All three are listed as questionable, though Jackson and Engram are expected to play.
Jackson is still recovering from Oct. 12 surgery on his right knee, but also has a back bruise from a block last week. He briefly left the game, but returned and finished with nine catches for 143 yards and a touchdown.
Engram also has a sore back and Bernard, who had a career-high 8 1/2 sacks this season, has a left foot injury.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Panthers - 2nd place, NFC South; beat New York Giants 23-0, wild-card round; beat Chicago Bears 29-21, divisional round. Seahawks - 1st place, NFC West; first-round bye; beat Washington Redskins 20-10, divisional round.
PANTHERS LEADERS: Offense - Delhomme, 3,421 passing yards and 24 passing TDs; Foster, 879 rushing yards; Davis, 12 rushing TDs; Smith, 103 receptions, 1,563 receiving yards and 12 receiving TDs. Defense - Peppers, 10 1/2 sacks; Chris Gamble, 7 INTs.
SEAHAWKS LEADERS: Offense - Hasselbeck, 3,459 passing yards and 24 passing TDs; Alexander, 1,880 rushing yards and 28 rushing TDs; Engram, 67 receptions and 778 receiving yards; Joe Jurevicius, 10 receiving TDs. Defense - Bryce Fisher, 9 sacks; Michael Boulware, 4 INTs.
PANTHERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 104.9 yards per game (19th in NFL); Passing Offense - 204.4 ypg (17th); Total Offense - 309.4 ypg (22nd). Rushing Defense - 91.6 ypg (4th); Passing Defense - 191.1 ypg (9th); Total Defense - 282.6 ypg (3rd).
SEAHAWKS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 153.6 ypg (3rd); Passing Offense - 216.1 ypg (13th); Total Offense - 369.7 ypg (2nd). Rushing Defense - 94.4 ypg (5th); Passing Defense - 222.4 ypg (25th); Total Defense - 316.8 ypg (T-16th).
LAST MEETING: Oct. 31, 2004; Seahawks, 23-17. At Seattle, Alexander ran for 195 yards and two TDs, and Josh Brown kicked second-half FGs of 27, 45 and 22 yards to lift the Seahawks.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Panthers - Carolina has a plus-13 turnover ratio in its last six postseason games. … John Kasay has connected on 21 of 23 FGs in the playoffs. … Since the playoffs expanded to 10 teams in 1978, the New England Patriots in 1986 are the only team to win three road games to make the Super Bowl. Seahawks - The NFC’s No. 1 seed has advanced to the Super Bowl in eight of the last 12 years. … Holmgren is looking to become the fifth coach in NFL history to lead two teams to the Super Bowl, having reached the championship game with Green Bay in 1997 and defeating New England. … Seattle is 28-5 when Alexander rushes for 100 yards.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Panthers - 8-2 on the road; Seahawks - 9-0 at home.
INJURIES: Panthers - OUT: RB Foster (ankle/IR). QUESTIONABLE: DE Peppers (shoulder). PROBABLE: DT Jordan Carstens (illness); RB Brad Hoover (ankle); S Mike Minter (wrist); C Jeff Mitchell (knee); DT Kindal Moorehead (ankle); G Tutan Reyes (toe). Seahawks - QUESTIONABLE: DT Bernard (foot); WR Engram (lower back); WR Jackson (knee). PROBABLE: RB Alexander (concussion).