By TIM BOOTH, AP Sports Writer
SEATTLE (AP) — Despite being one of two undefeated teams in the NFC, Ron Rivera was not prepared to proclaim the Carolina Panthers among the elite of the conference.
Even if the Panthers had just given validity to their 5-0 start by knocking off the two-time defending NFC champs.
“I think we’re competing to be one of the best teams. Again to make any proclamation right now would be foolhardy,” Rivera said. “I think the thing we have to look at is that we will still have a long way to go.”
Carolina proved they belong in the conversation among the best teams in the conference after rallying to stun Seattle 27-23 on Sunday. Along with Green Bay, the Panthers are the only unbeaten team in the NFC and answered a lingering question of whether their strong start was the result of a soft schedule or a true indication of their talent.
The answer is likely somewhere in the middle. But a win in Seattle is nothing to be scoffed at.
Cam Newton capped Carolina’s rally with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen with 32 seconds left when Seattle’s secondary was caught playing two different coverages. Newton threw for 269 yards but was at his best in the fourth quarter, completing 12 of 15 passes for 162 yards and leading two 80-yard touchdown drives.
While Carolina answered some of its questions, Seattle continues to add them about what’s gone wrong. The Seahawks are 2-4 for the first time since 2011 when they started 2-6. But it’s the way Seattle has lost which is leaving everyone baffled.
A team known for its ability to close out games cannot finish in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks have blown fourth-quarter leads in all four of their losses. Last week against Cincinnati, it was a 17-point lead getting away. On Sunday, the Seahawks led Carolina 23-14 with less than 12 minutes left and couldn’t close out.
Since the expansion of the playoffs in 1990, only 14 of 168 teams to start the year 2-4 have made the postseason. None have reached the Super Bowl.
“We just need to learn to finish,” Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril said. “We’ll play (three) quarters and three-fourths of that fourth quarter. Somehow, we’re just not finishing. We’ve got to get back to who we are, and that’s what we do is finish games.”
Here’s what else to know from Carolina snapping a five-game losing streak to the Seahawks:
MARCH ALONG: Carolina’s offense wasn’t very good for large chunks of the game. Newton was 4 of 12 passing for 46 yards at halftime.
But when the Panthers got going, they put together four 80-yard touchdown drives against Seattle’s vaunted defense. Jonathan Stewart capped two of the drives with 1-yard touchdown runs and Newton added a 2-yard TD run in the first half.
The one that will be remembered is Newton’s final drive where he completed 6 of 7 passes and capped it with his strike to Olsen.
“It was a panic early on, trying to get out the huddle. But after we get set, it was just Greg being Greg,” Newton said.
ON TARGET: The connection between Russell Wilson and Jimmy Graham was at its peak on Sunday. Graham had eight catches for 140 yards and was targeted 12 times by Wilson. It was Graham’s best game in terms of yards since Week 2 of the 2013 season.
“The really encouraging thing is that that’s the first time we’ve really seen Jimmy in the scramble situations, really come to life,” Carroll said. “He played a fantastic game.”
KUECHLY RETURNS: Luke Kuechly was back after missing three games with a concussion and to little surprise he led the Panthers with 14 tackles.
UNLEASH THE BEAST: Marshawn Lynch returned after missing the previous 2 1/2 games because of a hamstring injury, but continued to struggle getting started in the run game. He finished with 54 yards and his first touchdown of the season on 17 carries. But he’s averaging more than one yard less per carry than last season.
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