NFC champion Panthers follow Seahawks’ path to Super Bowl

While providing little in the way of solace for disheartened Seattle sports fans, it’s not out of the question to offer the opinion that the Seahawks finished up as the second-best team in the NFC.

Transitive comparisons can mislead in the field of athletics, but on successive Sundays the Seahawks lost 31-24 on the road against Carolina while Arizona lost the NFC championship game on the same turf in a 49-15 rout.

Although the Seahawks were ousted in the divisional round, the reasonable margin of their comeback loss makes it seem as if the distance between them and a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance was relatively slim.

No parades are planned to celebrate that accomplishment, of course.

But if Seattle fans can, for the moment, put aside their burgeoning impatience with expressive Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, it is worth noting that Carolina seems to be providing evidence that the Seahawks’ winning blueprint remains valid.

This makes it curious to see if the Denver Broncos will have as much trouble against the Panthers in Super Bowl 50 as they did against Seattle in Super Bowl 48 — a 43-8 Seahawks romp.

With an elite rushing attack operated by a dual-threat quarterback, supported by a ridiculously predatory defense, the Panthers of 2015 very closely resemble recent Seahawks teams.

The Panthers, for instance, forced seven Arizona turnovers in the Sunday destruction of the Cardinals. This was after a season in which they led the NFL with a plus-20 turnover ratio, while coming up with a total of 39 takeaways.

The Seahawks numbers in those categories in the 2013 regular season? An identical plus-20 ratio and 39 takeaways.

The Panthers don’t just look like the East Coast Seahawks, but also have followed a similar path on their way to being favored to win Super Bowl 50.

After losing to the Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs on Jan. 10, 2015, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of the 31-17 defeat: “We can’t put ourselves in a hole and expect to win football games, especially against good football teams like (Seattle).”

A lesson was learned.

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, after the recent loss to Carolina, echoed Rivera’s point, this time from the other side of the scoreboard: “We could have given ourselves a chance to win the football game had we gotten our act together earlier.”

In response to that playoff loss to the Seahawks last season, the Panthers came back tough from the start, and dominated this season with a 15-1 record.

And that could be the lesson in all of this for the Seahawks, as well as any other team trying to get to the Super Bowl. The Panthers earned the No. 1 seed in the conference, as did the Broncos in the AFC.

From Super Bowl 40-45, three wild card teams not only made it to the Super Bowl after winning three straight road playoff games, but also won the championship.

Not now, though.

This is the third consecutive season that the No. 1 seeds from each conference advanced to the Super Bowl.

The point is obvious, but never more relevant. You play at home, your chances are enhanced. You earn the honor by winning early and often.

By starting 2-4, the Hawks had more losses by mid-October than either of the top-two seeds, Carolina and Arizona, would have all season. Hosting the conference championship was off the board in the first month.

No matter how hot a team gets late, it still can place itself at a significant disadvantage with early losses.

Carolina beat the Seahawks in Seattle during the regular season, so maybe the venue wouldn’t have mattered in the playoffs this time around anyway.

Now, the narrative for the Super Bowl will be similar to that in the year of the Seahawks championship: Denver’s Peyton Manning “matched” against a young, mobile quarterback. It was Seattle’s Russell Wilson two years ago, Carolina’s Newton this time.

Like that game, the quarterback duel might have less of an effect on the outcome than does the way the defenses pressure the quarterbacks, and how frequently they can come up with interceptions and turnovers.

That’s not just the best map for getting there, but the blueprint for winning it, too.

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