Panthers quarterback Cam Newton unleashes a signature celebration whenever he scores, acting as if he’s ripping open his jersey to show the big Superman “S” on his chest.
But on Saturday at CenturyLink Field, one quarterback was more worthy of superhero status, the little guy on the other team — Russell Wilson.
Wilson showed his increasing command and mastery of the Seahawks’ offense, unleashing three touchdown passes in the 31-17 NFC division round playoff win over Carolina on Saturday night that leaves Seattle one victory away from a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance.
The Seattle defense will be deservedly lauded after this win, particularly strong safety Kam Chancellor, who looked far more Super-Manly than Newton on this night.
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But it was Wilson’s calm and competent direction that make the offense work — especially when it was most needed.
On third down passes, Wilson completed all eight of his attempts for 199 yards and three scores.
“He had a great night … three third-down touchdown passes, which is almost unheard of,” coach Pete Carroll said. “That’s a fantastic night, coming through in critical situations.”
It added up to 268 passing yards and a career postseason high passer rating of 149.2.
Wilson downplayed his effort, saying he was just “trying to get the ball to the right guy at the right time.”
Did he ever.
The first scoring pass was to Doug Baldwin, a 16-yarder that Baldwin helped call. He saw a Panther sneaking up to blitz, and pointed him out to Wilson.
Wilson’s quarterback coach, Carl Smith, can explain.
“The throw to Doug on the seam route for the touchdown was a pretty throw,” Smith said. “It was a blitz, so he had to put it up and spend some time in the air; it was perfect.”
After he caught it, Baldwin came running back out of the end zone, pointing at Wilson in appreciation.
“He threw a beautiful ball and gave me a chance to go up and get it,” Baldwin said. “Russ did just a great job of reading the coverage and made the right decision.”
The next touchdown came on a perfect throw and catch to Jermaine Kearse, who had to grab the ball with one hand and then run in 63 yards for the score.
“Kearse made a spectacular play,” Smith said. “But it was a perfect ball, too.”
Wilson’s third scoring pass was drilled in to tight end Luke Willson in the fourth quarter, again on a perfect read of the defense.
“They had two (defenders) come free on the edge, so Luke was his hot receiver and he found him perfectly,” Smith said. “He hit dang near every throw he had all night; he threw a couple away, but he was really on it.”
But so much of what Wilson does goes unappreciated. It’s hard to know the profound effect of leadership in the huddle, his coolness under pressure. Vastly overlooked, too, is his awareness on the field. The first Seattle possession after halftime, for instance.
Wilson handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, but Lynch fumbled after being hit. The ball bounced out into the open field at about the Seattle 27. Wilson, though, was continuing his fake, spotted the ball and jumped on it.
The Seahawks were ahead 14-10 at the time, but if the Panthers had recovered that with a short field ahead of them and the momentum going their way, the game could have changed.
It doesn’t go unnoticed among opponents. Veteran Panthers safety Roman Harper has now played against Wilson a number of times.
“This guy is really playing at a high level right now,” Harper said. “He’s able to make plays with his legs, his arm, and he’s so accurate and has such a great touch and command of that offense.”
Wilson’s game is so focused on directing the offense that he often doesn’t build the eye-catching stats.
But this offense is successful because of him.
“He’s doing a great job of leading this team,” Harper said. “Everybody thinks it’s all Marshawn, Marshawn, and the run game, but when Russell Wilson is playing well, it’s really hard because you can’t load up (defenders) in the box.”
Carroll expressed disappointment this week that Wilson didn’t make the Pro Bowl roster. People don’t understand how tough he is, either, Carroll said, reminding listeners that Wilson has never missed a day of practice.
A day is coming when the Hawks are going to bestow Wilson with an enormous contract.
Games like this make him deserving.
“He’s something special,” Smith said of Wilson. “Very special.”