Patriots eye repeat, Newton drives Panthers forward
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are a step closer to playing in Super Bowl 50 after a 31-24 home win against the Seattle Seahawks.
Carolina led 31-0 at halftime, before Seattle produced a stirring second-half comeback to close to within a touchdown, but the Panthers held on to the lead and progressed to the NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Newton completed 16 out of 22 passes for 161 yards and one touchdown, while running back Jonathan Stewart made an impressive return from injury, rushing for 106 yards and two touchdowns over 19 carries.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly and tight end Greg Olsen also scored touchdowns for the Panthers, but Newton acknowledged after the game that his team will need to improve if they are to defeat the Cardinals.
"It was excruciating to watch," he said. "It was a tale of two halves. We've got to be better than that."
In Phoenix, veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's touchdown gave the Cardinals a 26-20 overtime victory against Green Bay.
The Packers had forced overtime with a touchdown on their final drive during regulation thanks to another “Aaron Rodgers Special,” but after winning the toss for possession, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer kept his cool to lead his team to the crucial touchdown score.
Making a desperate spin to get away from a defender, Palmer found Fitzgerald with his first pass in overtime, and the wide receiver took full advantage to gain 75 yards.
Two plays later, Palmer hit Fitzgerald again and he reached the end zone from the five-yard line to send the Cardinals through to the conference championship game.
The last time Arizona and Carolina met was in last season's wild-card round, with the Panthers securing a 27-16 victory.
In Massachusetts, Tom Brady led New England to their fifth consecutive AFC title game, as the Patriots sealed a 27-20 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Brady completed 28 passes out of 42 attempts, throwing for two touchdowns to tight end Rob Gronkowski and sneaking in for another himself.
The 38-year-old, who will compete for the conference title for the 10th time in his career, said: "It's pretty special to get back to another AFC championship game. It's pretty cool. It's hard to do, man.
"You've got to grind throughout the entire year. There's only four teams playing next week and we're one of them. That game means a lot," Brady added.
The Patriots, who are aiming to win their second straight Super Bowl, will face Denver in the AFC championship after the Broncos triumphed 23-16 over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who made his first start since November, was solid enough on his return, completing 21 out of 37 passes for 222 yards.
The game was a tight affair, with the Steelers matching the Broncos on the scoreboard until five minutes into the fourth quarter, when Denver cornerback Bradley Roby knocked the ball out of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint's hands, causing a fumble.
DeMarcus Ware recovered the ball, and the turnover led to the winning touchdown, a one-yard run by C.J. Anderson with three minutes left to play.
Anderson was the difference between the Broncos and the Patriots on their last meeting in November, scoring on a 48-yard run to seal a 30-24 overtime Denver win.