Road warriors face unbeaten hosts

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
SEATTLE - The road to the Super Bowl never leads through Carolina. Instead, it leads the Panthers all over the map.
Two years ago, they went to St. Louis and Philadelphia in the playoffs, won both times and made their first NFL championship game appearance. This winter, the stops have been in the Northeast (23-0 over the Giants), the Midwest (29-21 over the Bears) and, now, the Pacific Northwest, where the Seahawks await today in the NFC title game.
Don't expect the Panthers to be intimidated. They've already shut out one of the league's most prolific offenses and manhandled the stingiest defense.
Carolina is 8-2 as a visitor this season and is trying to become the first team to win five straight road playoff games.
"I think when we go on the road, it's just us against the whole city," Panthers DE Julius Peppers said. "You go to a city like New York and Chicago, where we only travel with 46 players and the coaches and the media guys through the organization, less than 100 people. It's us against the whole people, basically ... so I think we see the challenge. I think it brings us tighter when we're on the road because we know we're all we have in that city at that time."
The Panthers were seeded fifth after going 11-5 during the season, finishing second to Tampa Bay in the NFC South. But while the Buccaneers went out in the first round to Washington, the Panthers are looking very much like the team that barely lost to New England, 32-29, in the 2004 Super Bowl.
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, whose team was 5-3 away from Qwest Field this season, is impressed by how well the Panthers travel.
"I'm envious," he said. "I heard something this morning about Pittsburgh's road record (also 8-2); I admire that. It's very difficult to win on the road, and teams that have figured out how to do that on a consistent basis usually will be very good and be in the playoffs.
"It's tough. I've always started from the other way, knowing that if you're not good at home, you have no chance at being good at anything. I also know that you have to be a capable road team, you have to be able to win on the road. At some point you're going to play big games on the road. But I've always approached it, let's learn to be dominant at home and then we'll go to Plan B."
Seattle hasn't needed a Plan B this year. The Seahawks went 13-3 during the regular season, 8-0 at home, giving them home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They beat the Redskins last week even though league MVP Shaun Alexander had just six carries for 9 yards before leaving with a concussion.
He's recovered and will be ready for the conference championship, a place the Seahawks haven't been in 22 years - when they played in the AFC.
"It is exciting. I told someone it is like a dream and we don't want to wake up, or a ride we don't want to stop," Alexander said. "It is just awesome to be in this situation. We play another great team with probably a better defense, better skill players. Who knows what happens?"
If Seattle's home-field dominance is an edge, it isn't a big one against a road-tested squad such as Carolina. Where the Panthers could have an advantage is any carry-over from their playoff run of two years ago. They have 29 players who appeared in the Super Bowl against New England, most of them major contributors.
How much will that help? "It does, but it doesn't," All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith said. "A lot of guys who were here two years ago, that was their first time dealing with it. Everybody has to handle it differently. Absorb it, enjoy it, but at the same time don't let it take too much of a hold on you."
Holmgren doesn't necessarily believe the Panthers have an experience edge at this point. The Seahawks aren't exactly strangers to the postseason under the coach who won the 1997 Super Bowl with Green Bay, then lost to Denver the next year.
"We've been in the playoffs for three years now, and we won a playoff game last week," he said. "We've been tested."

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