Sign of a quality NFL team: Winning on the road late against a good team when many things are working against the game plan.
The Seahawks now can consider themselves a quality team.
Carolina had 476 yards of total offense, a season high against Seattle. QB Cam Newton and RB Christian McCaffrey seemed at times unstoppable. The Panthers defense held the NFL’s top rushing team to half its average. Carolina recovered all five of its fumbles.
Yet the Seahawks are 6-5 and bearing down on a playoff berth because they found ways to work around their own shortcomings while exploiting the same in their hosts, providing a chance to win if the Panthers blinked. They did.
“We finished well last time out,” coach Pete Carroll said of a 27-24 win over Green Bay at home 11 days ago. “We finished really well again today.
“I’m really proud of that.”
The kids are growing up.
The harrowing, 30-27 triumph (box) Sunday in Charlotte was completed only on a final-play, 33-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski. But the biggest triumph of the season was created by some familiar Russell Wilson fourth-quarter ballsiness, aided by youngsters on a defense who were nails on the final details.
The injury absence of veteran LB K.J. Wright figured to leave the Seahawks vulnerable, which was often the case. But youngsters CB Tre Flowers, DT Nazair Jones, and Wright’s replacement, LB Austin Calitro, helped keep the Panthers scoreless on four of seven trips into the red zone.
No play was more important than a tackle by Flowers on the Panthers’ final scrimmage play. Preceding it were pass completions of 10, 18 and 11 yards by Newton to reach the Seattle 40-yard line at the two-minute mark of a game tied at 27.
After Newton scrambled for a small gain, he threw incomplete, setting up a third-and-seven. Newton threw short to WR D.J. Moore, who had acres of green in front of him. But Flowers made a sure, open-field tackle that kept the gain to three yards.
“That,” said Carroll, “was a heck of a big play.”
From there, reliable veteran PK Graham Gano, who hadn’t missed a field goal at home in five years, did so from 52 yards. Door opened, Wilson took over, punctuating another masterful fourth quarter.
Well-protected by an improving O-line, Wilson on third down hit a 43-yard completion to WR Tyler Lockett to the Carolina 10. From there, he burned the clock until :04 remained, inviting in Janikowski to stun the Panthers.
A trendy mid-season pick for the playoffs at 6-2, the Panthers have lost three in a row, including Sunday’s first home defeat in 11 games.
“Three weeks ago,” said Newton, “if somebody had said this was going to happen, I would have slapped them.”
Meanwhile, Carroll was using his hands to applaud the Seahawks’ youngsters, who are making fewer mistakes as the season progresses.
“We’ve come a long ways with a lot of young guys,” he said. “We’ve said before, when we get to the midpoint, they’re veterans. We don’t feel like we have young guys playing any more. They’re making better choices because they’ve been there. It does add up.
“Those early games (losses to Chicago and Denver), experience could have made a difference, for sure.”
The upshot is that the Seahawks have expanded their ways to win. The Panthers clearly loaded up to deny Seattle its ground game, which had just 75 yards, led by RB Chris Carson’s 55 in 16 carries, including a spectacular forward flip that became a two-footed landing.
But that left lots of room in the Panthers’ injury-depleted secondary for Wilson. He completed 22 of 31 passes for 339 yards, just two sacks and no turnovers.
“Russ came through throwing the ball,” Carroll said. “He did a wonderful job down the stretch when we had to have them. Guys made catches and the pass protections were there for us.
“It’s not a surprise they played us tough in the running game. If (Carolina) commits (to stopping the run), we can use play-action to get the ball over top of them. It does give us space to throw. (Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) has to balance that out, and I thought he did a great job.”
Beneficiaries were Lockett, who also had a touchdown in his five catches for 107 yards; David Moore, a touchdown and 103 yards on four catches, and Doug Baldwin (39 yards in five carries), who was a game-time decision to play after developing a groin strain during the week.
Back-to-back wins by three points each don’t describe a powerhouse. But it does suggest movement in the right direction. They survived a gauntlet of superior quarterbacks, and close out the season with four home games in the final five, including next Sunday at the Clink against still-decaying San Francisco.
“This was really a rewarding win, on the road again, out east here,” Carroll said. “We’ve been able to do this well for a long time. Hopefully, it will help us if we get another chance to come back out.”
That would be for a playoff game — as close as Carroll will come publicly to looking ahead. But he knows now that such a hint, following an off-season of controversial upheaval, will draw no further mockery. He is directing a quality team.