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Carolina ball? It's hard to describe, but it's all about winning

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Many called Sunday's 31-24 victory over the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks a statement game for the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers don't agree.

"We're just trying to play Carolina ball," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said in his usual soft-spoken tone. "We're not trying really to make statements.

"We just want to play Carolina ball and have people make their judgments off that."

So, for those who will be watching for the first time when the Panthers (16-1) face the Arizona Cardinals (14-3) in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, exactly what is Carolina ball?

As Cotchery noted, it's "kind of hard to describe."

That's because the Panthers can beat you in so many ways. They can beat you with great defense led by Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who on Sunday returned an interception 14 yards for a touchdown.

They can beat you with an explosive offense led by likely NFL MVP Cam Newton, who didn't have to be spectacular against Seattle because other parts of the unit were working so efficiently.

They can beat you with a great effort from tight end Greg Olsen one week and a great effort from one of a rag-tag group of wide receivers the next.

They can beat you with running back Jonathan Stewart, who started Sunday's first-half shellacking with a 59-yard run against a defense that allowed only 85 yards rushing combined the previous two games. They can beat you without Stewart, who missed the final three regular-season games with a sprained foot.

They can beat you in many of the same ways the Seahawks won the past two NFC championships -- by being a complete team.

They can beat you with heart.

"When you come out, a lot of teams don't understand the intensity that we play with, the toughness that we have as a group," Cotchery said. "But we've got a bunch of smart individuals that allows us to do a lot of things offensively, defensively, special-teams wise.

"It's hard to handle. The word that keeps coming up is 'special.' We just have a really special group."

The Panthers were extraordinarily special in the first half against Seattle. They were up 14-0 less than four minutes in and 31-0 at halftime.

They were clicking on all cylinders, as they did so often in winning their first 14 games and going an NFL-best 15-1 during the regular season.

They made it look easy, too, against a strong Seattle defense that allowed only one touchdown in its last two games.

That they allowed Seattle to get back in the game in the second half doesn't matter. This still was domination over a team that has usually done the dominating.

"I can't explain it," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "I've never been a part of something like this. It's like becoming a dad for the first time, you don't know what to expect.

"But I can tell you that we've got a lot of special guys and a lot of people that's making plays. It's fun."

There's that word again. Special. You hear it over and over, not only from the players but from the coaching staff and management.

Carolina ball in many ways is old-school football, the way the Chicago Bears played in 1985 when Panthers coach Ron Rivera was a linebacker on that team. The Bears lost only one game en route to the Super Bowl.

Carolina is on a similar path.

"Smash-mouth," defensive end Charles Johnson said as he described Carolina ball. "We're going to come after you. We're going to try to beat you up front and do it the old-school way. Run the ball and stop you up front with defense."

Tolbert summed up Carolina ball in four phases: "In your face, shutdown defense, rushing attack, Cam Newton."

Newton perhaps summed up Carolina ball best, and he needed only one word.

"Winning," he said.

That's a statement any way you look at it.