SEATTLE — Over the final month of the season, Carolina took advantage of its opportunities to make a surprising entry into the NFL playoffs.
Against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, the Panthers had few opportunities.
The Seahawks scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and advanced to the NFC championship game with a 31-17 victory.
The Panthers turned the ball over three times, setting up two Seattle touchdowns, while the Seahawks didn't commit a turnover.
"Well, certainly, we needed them to make some mistakes and that would help," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "But it didn't happen, again credit to them. They did some really good things, we made some mistakes. We missed some opportunities. They did some things that lead to winning championships."
The Panthers (8-9-1), who finished the regular season with a losing record, essential had been in a playoff mode since early December. They beat New Orleans, Cleveland and Atlanta to win the NFC South title then knocked off Arizona last week in the first round of the playoffs.
"They played together, they came together and they deserved to be here," Rivera said. "Again, I know a lot of people don't agree with me, but that's too bad. That's the way it is."
It took Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson throwing for three touchdowns — all on third downs — to make the difference.
"That's big. Third down is the money down," Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "They do a good job running. And when you run well, that opens it up for them. He (Wilson) knows what's going on. He's an intelligent guy, a smart guy. He knows where he wants to go with the football, he makes quick decisions.
"That first touchdown fit Russell Wilson to a T right there."
The Seahawks (13-4) never trailed and became the first defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game the following season since New England in January 2006.
Since that Patriots victory, three defending champions have earned byes only to lose in the divisional round, the last being Green Bay in the 2011 playoffs.
Seattle will host either Green Bay or Dallas next Sunday for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton threw a pair of touchdowns to Kelvin Benjamin, but Carolina couldn't overcome the turnovers. The biggest blow was Kam Chancellor's 90-yard interception return midway through the fourth quarter that gave Seattle a 31-10 lead.
"I don't know if a strong safety can have a better game than Kam did tonight," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
After knocking off Arizona in the wild-card round last week, Carolina was trying to be the first team to reach a conference championship game after having a losing record in the regular season.
Much like the previous three regular-season games between the two teams, Carolina made it difficult on Seattle. The best running team in the NFL this season was held to 100 yards rushing by the Panthers defense.
Marshawn Lynch was mostly a non-factor aside from a 25-yard run in the third quarter that helped set up Steven Hauschka's 37-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But Wilson was outstanding, especially on third down. Wilson hit Doug Baldwin on third-and-9 on his TD catch in the first quarter.
Jermaine Kearse's 63-yard TD reception came on a third-and-7. And Luke Willson's 25-yard catch-and-run TD was on third-and-10.
Wilson finished with a passer rating of 149.2, the second-highest for any game in his career. He passed for 199 yards on third downs.
"They just made big plays. It wasn't like they drove. It was just big plays that came back to bite us defensively," Carolina safety Roman Harper said. "We will be better because of this. Everything is always something to learn from and we got to do that."
Newton played well, but the turnovers overshadowed his performance. Newton finished 23 of 36 for 246 yards and added 37 yards rushing. Jonathan Stewart had been a key to the Panthers' late-season surge, and rushed for 70 yards on 13 carries.
Newton got away with testing All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman in the first quarter and watching Sherman dance away with his first career postseason interception.
But Seattle took the lead after Carolina's second turnover of the first quarter. Michael Bennett disrupted the handoff between Newton and Stewart and Tony McDaniel fell on the loose ball at the Carolina 28. Wilson connected with Baldwin to take the lead and Carolina never pulled back even.
NOTES: Seattle won its eighth straight home playoff game. ... Carolina's 132 yards rushing were fourth-most of any team vs. Seattle this season. ... Benjamin had two TDs in a game for the second time this season.