CHARLOTTE — The 49 points are the most ever in an NFC championship game.
But all those points cast a long shadow over the reason the Carolina Panthers won the game to get to Super Bowl 50.
The next-man-up Carolina defense flat-out dominated the NFL’s best offense as the Panthers crushed the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 at a sold-out Bank of America Stadium on Sunday night.
The Cardinals averaged an NFL-best 408.3 yards per game this season and scored a franchise-record 30.6 per game. Arizona will send seven players to the Pro Bowl, including quarterback Carson Palmer.
And none of that mattered a bit against the Panthers defense.
Carolina made Palmer look bad.
“We knew who they were,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “They’re a very good team. There’s a lot of talent on that team, a lot of playmakers around a very good quarterback with a great arm. But we felt we could mix it up, do a good job disguising moving guys around. We felt we could give ourselves a chance.”
The Panthers sacked Palmer three times, with the hits by Kawann Short and Charles Johnson forcing fumbles to kill drives.
The defense hit Palmer six more times, rushing him into mistakes. Palmer completed as many passes to Carolina defenders — four interceptions — as he threw to All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Two of the interceptions were near the goal line on nice catches by free safety Kurt Coleman.
A third interception was returned for a touchdown by linebacker Luke Kuechly to finish the scoring in the fourth quarter.
“You look at the score, and there’s still time left on the clock,” Kuechly said. “You’ve got to keep playing and finish the game strong. You can’t rest or relax until the game is over.”
The fourth interception went to backup safety Tre Boston, playing in place of injured strrong safety Roman Harper.
“Our defensive line deserves the biggest part of the credit for the interceptions,” Kuechly said. “They get pressure, we get picks.”
Carolina’s defense embarrassed a good offense.
And the Panthers did it short-handed.
Pass-rushing defensive end Jared Allen didn’t dress for the game, out with a broken foot.
Harper left the game with an eye injury, knocked out by a hit from teammate Kuechly on a gang tackle.
Linebacker Thomas Davis — along with Kuechly, the heart of the defense — left with an arm injury. Davis made a tackle on big tight end Darren Fells, but the receiver jumped at the end of the play, his knee striking Davis hard in the forearm.
“It’s a hit to lose those guys,” Kuechly said, “but our mentality has been ‘Next man up.’ ”
Davis, the longest-tenured Panther, watched the end of the game with his arm wrapped from wrist to elbow.
“I wouldn’t miss the Super Bowl for the world,” Davis said. “We worked too hard to get to this point.”
And so the Panthers head to the Super Bowl, on the strength of their defense.