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Carolina Panthers Advance To NFC Championship Game

The Carolina Panthers are one win from the Super Bowl. They beat the Seattle Seahawks in uptown Charlotte on Sunday 31-24.

When Bob Hennis parked in uptown around 9:00 Sunday morning, it was snowing.

Hennis has been coming to Panthers games since 2000 and can only remember one other snowy tailgate. Did he think twice about driving to this one?

“Absolutely not!” he said with a laugh. “No way! It’s football, right?”

When your favorite team is coming off its best regular season ever, it’s an obvious answer.

Charlotte has gone a little nuts for the 15-1 Panthers. Mayor Jennifer Roberts declared January “Carolina Panthers Pride Month.” There’s a ridiculous photo of her and the city council doing the dab, quarterback Cam Newton’s touchdown celebration. Large banners were hung up on construction cranes.

The Panthers have helped make Sunday big business for uptown sports bars, too.

“When they're winning, it gets pretty crazy in here,” says Lauren Marr, event coordinator at Sports One Bar and Lounge. “It's always a good experience when they are winning.”

There even seemed to be more scalpers than usual Sunday. There was such high demand for tickets that CMPD held a press conference last week to warn about fakes. Real ones were going for $170 online yesterday. (That was for the worst seats.)

By kickoff, the snow was long gone and the temperature had risen into the 40s. The atmosphere was awesome, as roughly 75,000 people lost their minds as the Panthers jumped out to quick lead.

Running back Jonathan Stewart broke the first play from scrimmage for 59 yards. Three plays later, Stewart punched it in for the game’s opening touchdown.

Then on the Seattle Seahawks’ first possession, quarterback Russell Wilson threw an interception to Panthers’ linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly ran it back for a touchdown.

The Panthers dominated the first half 31-0.

The second half was the exact opposite story, and each Seahawks touchdown deflated the crowd a little more.

Russell Wilson’s second touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse made it a 10-point game. The Seahawks hit a field goal with just over a minute left. But then Panthers linebacker and co-captain Thomas Davis recovered Seattle’s onside kick, sealing the game.

The win means the Panthers will host the NFC Championship game for the first time. They’ve played on the road the three other times they’ve made it this far.

Quarterback Cam Newton says the team has to be better about playing a complete game.

“We’ve been known to kind of let the foot off the throttle,” he says. “We’ve just got to get that killer instinct. Yeah, we won the football game, but there’s some things that we got to go back and huddle up and be better with.”

In the locker room after the game, safety Kurt Coleman pointed out there is so little separating teams at this point in the playoffs. He says making the conference championship is a blessing.

“I’ve never been here, but I’m excited,” he says. “And it’s at home. It’s in front of these fans. These fans were phenomenal today. This is what it’s all about. This is playoff football. This is why it’s so much fun.”

Coach Ron Rivera says he and the other coaches will study what went wrong in the second half and work to correct it. This will be Rivera’s first trip to the NFC championship game as head coach.

“We’ve played some very good football teams along the way, Seattle being one of them,” he says. “In all honesty, they’ve been the watermark here in the NFC. And we got an opportunity, and we won.”

“Now, here comes the next one, and that’s Arizona,” Rivera continued. “They’re the 2 seed for a reason. They’re a very well coached football team. They’ve got a dynamic quarterback, and then they’ve got an aggressive defense. I mean this is a complete team that we’ll play as well, and we’ve got to be on our game.”

The Panthers will host the Arizona Cardinals Sunday evening at Bank of America Stadium.