CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The year of transition never really was in Seattle, with the baton pass to a younger team -- one without the famed dominant defense -- progressing much more rapidly than anyone could have predicted. On Sunday, the newfangled Seahawks arrived firmly in the playoff mix with a 30-27 defeat of the Carolina Panthers that was their second straight victory conjured from an apparent defeat.
"We have come a long way," an ebullient Pete Carroll said. "We have a lot of young guys playing. We don't feel like we have young guys playing anymore."
The victory makes the Seahawks 6-5 and catapults them over the Panthers, who are also 6-5, in the wild-card race for now. And the Seahawks have a critical edge going into December -- they play four of their final five games at home, and have two games against the punchless 49ers and one against the Cardinals. The Panthers, who have now lost three in a row, still have to face New Orleans twice in the final three weeks of the season, with the Saints unlikely to be able to rest players to stay ahead of the Los Angeles Rams for home-field advantage in the NFC.
"I take it personally," a disgusted Cam Newton said after Sunday's loss. "If somebody had said three weeks ago this would have happened, I would have slapped them."
It's a question for another day whether either of these teams, with uneven offenses, could be a serious playoff threat in the current explosive NFL climate encapsulated by last week's epic shootout between the Chiefs and Rams. Those race cars might treat these teams like speed bumps. But for the Seahawks in particular, just being in the conversation and contemplating the possibility is coming a year ahead of schedule, even if every game is still a must-win.
"We're already in the playoffs as far as we're concerned," Carroll said.
When the Seahawks started the season 0-2, and when they dropped two in a row earlier this month, these gut-check moments seemed beyond their reach. And even early in this game against Carolina, when their running game was faltering against the stout Panthers front and the Seattle defense was giving up huge chunks of yards to Christian McCaffrey, it was obvious the 'Hawks would have to revert to the one reliable piece that has been threaded through both recent iterations of the team.
With the Panthers intent on stopping the Seahawks' rushing attack, which entered the game ranked first in the league, quarterback Russell Wilson enjoyed the kind of time and his receivers the sort of space that lend themselves to big plays. When Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson was injured and left the game on the first drive, Wilson went to work on the backups. The results: He was 22-of-31 for 339 passing yards and two touchdowns -- and he hit two of the gutsiest throws you'll ever see with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter.
Seattle was within striking range because, while the Panthers accumulated 476 yards and were inside the 20-yard line seven times, they came away with just three touchdowns. Each of the Seahawks' five losses has been by one score and they had ample opportunity to win each of them. Last week's comeback win over Green Bay indicated the 'Hawks might have finally learned how to finish -- and today seemed to solidify it.
With the Seahawks trailing by a touchdown and stalled at Carolina's 35-yard line on fourth-and-3, Wilson eschewed the conservative play and looked deep, to a tightly covered David Moore in the end zone. That touchdown tied the score. And after the Panthers missed what would have been a go-ahead field goal, Wilson got the ball back with 1:40 left to play at his own 42-yard line.
On third-and-5, with the clock down to just a minute and no timeouts remaining, Wilson dropped back. The safe route would be to try for the first down to keep the drive going and to perhaps set up a game-winning field goal. But Wilson had long seconds to consider his options, and he saw Tyler Lockett down the right sideline. He launched a rainbow and the Panthers' defensive back in coverage, Captain Munnerlyn, seemed to struggle to track the ball. He never turned around and Lockett caught the ball for a 43-yard gain. Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 31-yard field goal as the clock ran out.
"We knew as soon as Tyler caught that ball, we are taking a knee, we are going to kick and win and go home," said center Justin Britt. "We flew way too far to fly back with a loss. We came here with a mission, and we took care of it."
With the "Legion of Boom" gone, Seattle's new mission is well ahead of schedule.