Despite having taken a big step toward exorcising their demons against the Seattle Seahawks, the Carolina Panthers still must prove they can get past them on a much grander stage.
After getting knocked from the playoffs by the Seahawks in this round last season, the Panthers can show their victory at Seattle in October was no fluke and prevent their nemesis from reaching a third consecutive NFC Championship game Sunday.
Carolina didn't have any statement-making wins before facing a huge hurdle in Week 6, visiting a Seahawks team which had won nine straight home games and 28 of 30 - including the playoffs. Cam Newton capped a rally from 13 down in the second half by hitting Greg Olsen on a 26-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds remaining for a 27-23 win, one which fifth-year coach Ron Rivera called "one of the bigger victories we've had since I've been here."
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It clearly boosted the confidence of a Panthers team which went on to win its first 14 games and posted by far the best regular season in franchise history at 15-1.
Seattle also responded in strong fashion, winning eight of 10 to close the regular season before last week's fortunate 10-9 wild-card win in Minnesota.
At least one member of the Panthers feels they are superior to Seattle, which has reached the past two Super Bowls and knocked off Carolina 31-17 in last year's divisional round.
''We are the better team,'' safety Roman Harper said. ''We have to go out and show confidence in who we are and the things that we have done all year - and don't shy away from the pressure."
The pressure is squarely on Newton for this one. The MVP candidate has one interception in his last eight games but has seven turnovers in three career playoff games, committing three in last year's loss at Seattle. His only playoff win came a week earlier, but that was against an Arizona team down to its third-string quarterback.
Newton had two more interceptions against the Seahawks in October but keyed the second-half comeback, finishing 20 of 36 for 269 yards. He also rushed for 30 yards and a score.
Before that win, Carolina was held to an average of 11.8 points during a five-game losing streak in the series. Unlike last year's playoff matchup, though, this time the Panthers are coming off a first-round bye and have the home-field advantage.
"We realize we've got to do this on the road and if we want to do something really special, it's going to take an incredible run here," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "... We're going to do everything we can to see if we can slow them down and find a way to move the football against a great football team."
Carolina hasn't been to the NFC title game since a 34-14 loss at Seattle after the 2005 season.
Both Harper and cornerback Josh Norman called it "fate" that the Panthers are getting the Seahawks again.
"After we played them (in Week 6), we said, 'We'll see you again in the playoffs,'" Norman told the team's official website. "It's cool. Fate gives you these chances to prove yourself worthy."
It seemed like fate when the Vikings' Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt with 26 seconds remaining to allow Seattle to advance, and that came after Adrian Peterson's fumble set up Steven Hauschka's go-ahead, 46-yard field goal. The Seahawks overcame a 9-0 deficit in the fourth quarter, sparked by Russell Wilson's three-yard TD pass to Doug Baldwin.
Wilson had a tough day in below-zero weather, completing 13 of 26 passes for 142 yards - his fewest since October 2014. He had just his second interception in eight games, a stretch during which he has 25 touchdown passes as his chemistry with Baldwin has grown.
Baldwin has 52 receptions for 766 yards and 13 touchdowns over that span. Now he's likely to draw plenty of attention from Norman, a physical, trash-talking All-Pro corner.
"Doug is an explosive guy," Norman said. "He makes plays whenever he can and he's a try-hard guy. He does everything he can to beat the defender. I like guys like that."
While Norman helped hold Baldwin to three catches for 23 yards in October, Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham had eight for 140 but is out for the season with a knee injury. Wilson threw for 241 yards and a score with no INTs but was sacked four times by a Carolina team that led the NFC with 44.
Though Marshawn Lynch hasn't had much success against that defense, Seattle surely would like to have him back. Lynch hasn't played since Week 10 with an abdomen injury, but he's listed as probable for Sunday.
The Seahawks were hopeful Lynch would return last week against Minnesota, but he did not accompany the team to Minneapolis after determining he was not ready to play. He's been a full participant in practice each day the past two weeks.
''This is his first surgery and it happens to be right in his core and you all know having watched him, you all know what kind of runner he is and the lateral things he does with his body they're so abrupt and so sudden he needs to feel he can do those things,'' Carroll said.
Lynch had 54 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against the Panthers earlier this season and has never topped 85 yards in seven games against them. Carolina ranked fourth in the league against the run at 88.4 yards per game.
The Seahawks were No. 1 at 81.5 and held Peterson to 45 on 23 carries, but they gave up a season-worst 135 rushing yards to Carolina. Jonathan Stewart ran for 78 and two TDs that day and will return after missing the last three games with a foot injury.
Top wideout Ted Ginn Jr. (leg) and starting safety Kurt Coleman (foot) also will be back after sitting out the regular-season finale. Defensively, though, the Panthers must rely on fill-in cornerbacks Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan after Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere recently suffered season-ending injuries.
While the Panthers have won 11 consecutive home games, Seattle has won a franchise-record six straight on the road - including last week's victory.
The Seahawks are trying to join Green Bay (1965-67), Miami (1971-73) and Buffalo (1991-93) as the only teams to reach three straight Super Bowls.