CHARLOTTE (AFP) – Quarterback Cam Newton’s two touchdown passes and a stellar effort from the Carolina defense lifted the Panthers to a 27-16 NFL playoff victory over Arizona on Saturday.
In the first game of the post-season, the Panthers advanced in the National Football Conference, dashing the Cardinals’ hopes of reaching the February 1 Super Bowl in their home stadium.
In American Football Conference action, the Baltimore Ravens, who just sneaked into the playoffs, marched into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers 30-17.
Although both teams put up club-record numbers in points and yardage this season, Saturday’s game was a classic Ravens-Steelers clash, with defense playing a pivotal role.
Baltimore sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times and forced two interceptions in the fourth quarter.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes, including one to Crockett Gillmore that gave the Ravens a 30-15 lead with less than eight minutes to play.
A holding penalty cost the Steelers a touchdown on the ensuing drive, and a pass from Roethlisberger was picked off in the end zone to seal the outcome.
The Steelers had won four straight home playoff games, but the injury absence of running back LeVeon Bell left them with no real ground attack.
Ben Tate, signed just this week, and rookie Josh Harris combined for 44 yards on the ground in place of Bell, who hyperextended his right knee in a win over Cincinnati in their regular-season finale.
The Ravens will have to win on the road again next week to advance, when they travel to New England to take on the Patriots in the second round.
The Denver Broncos, who like the Pats enjoyed a first-round bye, will face the winners of Sunday’s game between Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
In the NFC, the Panthers must wait for the outcome of Sunday’s first-round game between Detroit and Dallas to confirm their next opponent.
Reigning Super Bowl champions Seattle and Green Bay await this weekend’s NFC winners.
Newton connected on touchdown passes with Fozzy Whittaker and Mike Tolbert in the third quarter as the Panthers erased a 14-13 halftime deficit.
Carolina’s defense made sure the lead held up, limiting the injury-depleted Arizona offense to 12 yards and two first downs in the second half.
With third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley at the helm, the Cardinals notched a mere 78 net yards for the game — the fewest by one team in a playoff game in NFL history.
The previous record low was the 86 yards amassed by Cleveland in a loss to the Giants in 1958.
“Wow,” Panthers safety Roman Harper said of the stat. “It’s kind of crazy to think we did that.”
Both of Arizona’s touchdowns came on short drives in the wake of Carolina turnovers.
Lindley threw a touchdown pass to Darren Fells in the second quarter, but was intercepted twice and finished with just 82 yards.
Newton, still feeling the effects of the back injury he suffered in a December 9 car crash, completed 18 of his 32 passing attempts for 198 yards with one interception.
Jonathan Stewart added 123 rushing yards and a touchdown for the Panthers, who notched their fifth straight win.
The defeat concluded a dismal run for the Cardinals, who owned the best record in the league at 9-1 in November. They lost four of their last six regular-season games as quarterback Carson Palmer and then his backup Drew Stanton went down to injuries.
“We caught them at a good time,” admitted Carolina coach Ron Rivera, whose Panthers captured the weak NFC South division title with a 7-8-1 record. “They are a very good team, we were fortunate to come out ahead.”