The Seattle Seahawks have been tough at the end of the season, and even tougher at the end of games.
The defending Super Bowl champions, who sputtered early in the fall, have won their past six games and haven't allowed a fourth-quarter point during that stretch, allowing an average of just 66.0 yards rushing and 136.2 passing to finish with the NFL's top-ranked defense for the second consecutive year.
"We finish better than anybody," Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "It's a mind-set of tackling, finishing. It kind of signifies what we are as a team. We always talk about finishing, and having nobody score in the fourth quarter is a key component to that."
Carolina is certainly finishing better than it started. The Panthers went 1-8-1 during one 10-game stretch, and were the first team to make the playoffs after going more than two months without a victory. However, the Panthers ended the season with four wins in a row, and last weekend beat Arizona in a wild-card game.
Still, knocking off Seattle will take more.
"We have to play better than we have," said Panthers Coach Ron Rivera, whose team lost at home to Seattle, 13-9, in Week 8. "We just have to be smarter than some of the things we did out there [in the first-round game]. We have to protect the football."
Seattle is looking for its fifth consecutive victory over Carolina in the past five seasons. In the last three of those games combined, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton directed his team to just one touchdown.
Ready to dance
In 2010, Pete Carroll's first season as Seattle's coach, the Seahawks finished 7-9 but won the NFC West to become the NFL's first team to make the playoffs with a losing record.
This season, the Panthers finished 7-8-1 to become the second such team.
"It isn't the prettiest thing, but we got a date to the prom at the end of the day," Carolina safety Roman Harper said. "We're here. She's probably not the best-looking one; she's not going to win prom queen. But we'll have a good time."
Seattle's Marshawn Lynch has gotten plenty of attention for his bruising ability to run the football. But Carolina's Jonathan Stewart has been brutally effective, too. Since replacing the injured DeAngelo Williams in Week 13, Stewart has led the NFL with a rushing average of 101.5 yards per game.
Stewart grew up in Lacey, Wash., and once played a Pop Warner game on the Seahawks' home field, back when the team played in the long-since-imploded Kingdome.
"He looks like he did running in high school," Carroll told reporters this week. "I watched him and recruited and tried to get him way back then."
Stewart chose Oregon over USC. Asked how well he got to know him when he was coach of the Trojans, Carroll said: "Not well enough. We didn't get him."
By the numbers
Points scored; 21.2 (19); 24.6 (10)
Points allowed; 23.4 (21); 15.9 (1)
Pass offense; 219.4 (19); 203.1 (27)
Rush offense; 127.2 (7); 172.6 (1)
Pass defense; 227.8 (11); 185.6 (1)
Rush defense; 112.0 (16); 81.5 (3)
Sacks; 40 (13); 37 (20)
Penalty yards; 47.5 (5); 38.3 (1)
Turnovers; +3 (13); +9 (4)
This game should be pretty close, and pits similar teams on both sides of the ball. Neither team will be able to run the ball as well as they're accustomed to. The quarterbacks are going to try to run, and Russell Wilson is a lot quicker and more agile than Newton. If the Seahawks can pressure Newton, and they will, they'll force him to throw when his feet aren't set, and he'll make mistakes. Watch for him to turn the ball over at least three times.