- Associated Press - Monday, January 11, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - The Carolina Panthers no longer appear apprehensive about playing the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.

In fact, they’re pretty confident.

“We are the better team,” Panthers safety Roman Harper said matter-of-factly Monday.

Now Harper wants his teammates to prove it again Sunday when the two teams meet in Charlotte in the NFC divisional playoffs. The winner advances to play the Green Bay-Arizona winner for the NFC championship.

“We have to go out and show confidence in who we are and the things that we have done all year - and don’t shy away from the pressure,” Harper said.

The Panthers (15-1) took a big step forward when they went to Seattle and defeated the Seahawks 27-23 in Week 6, a victory that served as a springboard to their 14-0 start.

But it was more than just that.

That victory was about clearing a major obstacle for the Panthers. Before that they had lost four times in three seasons to the Seahawks, including 31-17 in the divisional playoffs last January in Seattle.

“It tells you it can be done,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of his team’s confident-building win in October.

The Panthers and Seahawks appeared to be on a collision course for the playoffs the final two months of the season. Several players said after that win they expected to see the Seahawks again in the postseason.

Harper even called it “fate.”

Many Panthers fans groaned on social media Sunday when Minnesota’s Blair Walsh missed a chip shot field goal that would have eliminated the Seahawks from the playoffs - and possibly given the Panthers a potentially easier road to the NFC title game by playing Green Bay rather than Seattle.

But Carolina All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, who is no stranger to overcoming adversity big obstacles in his career, said that’s not the approach the Panthers are taking this week.

“Why would you want anything in life that is easier?” Norman said. “Shoot man, if you don’t go for it head-on, then how can you say you’re the best at anything? That’s the way we are in our society - we want things the easy way and we want stuff to be given to us. We don’t want to work for it. We want it handed to us. I don’t think that is the way it should be done. … Challenge yourself to be the best. And if you want to be the best, then go beat the best.”

Harper said the Panthers are better prepared for the Seahawks this year’s playoffs than they were last January when they reached the postseason with a 7-8-1 record.

Carolina finished first in points scored on offense this season and led the league in takeaways.

“To be honest with you I don’t think we were ready for it,” Harper said of last year’s playoff defeat. “We were excited to be there and have a ticket to the dance. (This year) we have a better looking date because we’re 15-1 and at home. This year we are looking forward to them having to come here.”

The Panthers have not lost at home since Nov. 16, 2014 - a string of 11 straight games. That’s the longest home winning streak in the NFL.

They will have to win two more games to get to where they ultimately want to go - the Super Bowl.

“This team is built for this,” Harper said of a Panthers team that has eight All-Pros, including six on the first team. “This team is built for this playoff run and I’m looking forward to seeing who we are going to rise up to be.”


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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