CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In a game that may ultimately prove the difference between going to the playoffs and staying home in January, the Seahawks gave up a season-high 8.4 yards per play to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and a season-high 476 yards.
They allowed Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey to become the first opposing player to get 100 yards rushing (125) and receiving (112) against them since Kansas City’s Priest Holmes in 2002, per Pro Football Reference.
And their vaunted running game, which had accounted for 155 or more yards each of the last seven weeks — the best stretch in franchise history – was held to just 75.
But on Sunday afternoon, every time there was a critical play to be made at a critical juncture, more often than not, it was the Seahawks who made it.
This last must-make play came with no time left: Sebastian Janikowski’s 33-yard game-winning field goal as the clock struck zero gave Seattle a 30-27 win and came moments after Carolina’s Graham Gano had missed from 52.
“Just another routine kick,’’ insisted the 40-year-old Janikowski. “You can’t think about it because that’s when you are going to mess it up.’’
The kick was set up by another of the game’s many big plays – a 43-yard pass from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett to convert a third-and-5 and advance the ball to the Carolina 10 with 45 seconds left.
Lockett was supposed to go across the middle on the play. But when Wilson got some pressure and slid out of the pocket, Lockett saw there was no safety deep and ran past cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and into the open.
“He made a great instinctual play,’’ Wilson said, adding that Lockett had done something similar during a walkthrough earlier this week, after which Lockett had told Wilson “Hey, I’m just kind of working on something in case we need it.’”
Said Wilson: “Funny thing is, we needed it and it worked.’’
Enough so to give Seattle its second straight fourth-quarter comeback, a 6-5 record and as advantageous a position in the NFC playoff race as it could have hoped for two weeks ago, when the Seahawks were 4-5 and reeling. Seattle now has tiebreakers on both Carolina and Green Bay and returns home for four of its last five – three of which come against the NFC cellar-dwelling 49ers and Cardinals.
“We’re alive,’’ was all coach Pete Carroll would say about what the win meant. “We’ve got a long way to go.’’
Obvious make-or-break plays such as the final field goal and the Wilson-Lockett connection very clearly kept Seattle’s playoff hopes off life support, but there were so many more plays that occurred along the way that coaches and players pointed to later as big plays made when they were needed most.
And for all the yards Seattle allowed, the defense made its fair share of plays as Carolina drove inside the Seattle 18 on five of its first six possessions but left with just 13 points.
“All the red zone stops were dramatically important as you look back,’’ Carroll said.
None were as critical as the first, when Carolina drove to the Seattle 5 to open the game and went for it on fourth-and-2. From there, the Panthers called a run from quarterback Cam Newton behind an extra offensive tackle and a pulling guard.
Several Seahawks said they figured Newton was going to run the minute they saw how the Panthers were aligned.
“We knew something was going to come back that way,’’ said safety Bradley McDougald, who helped blow the play up and teamed with several other Seahawks, including tackle Nazair Jones, to hold Newton to a 1-yard gain.
Asked later about that knowledge helping him take his shot on that play, McDougald laughed. “I think everybody on that play took their shot,’’ he said.
The Panthers gained 236 yards in the first half but led just 13-10 at halftime due to the red zone stops and how Seattle’s offense responded to Carolina’s first two scores with points of their own.
The Panthers appeared poised to take control when they moved to the Seattle 18 to start the second half. But on a first-down play, Newton tried to sneak a pass into the end zone to tight end Chris Manhertz, who was initially covered by linebacker Austin Calitro.
Only, McDougald snuffed out that one, too, racing over and tipping the ball before controlling it in the end zone. McDougald said he intentionally tipped it because he wasn’t sure he could leap and catch it with both hands.
“I was actually able to see the whole delivery of the pass,’’ McDougald said. “I seen Cam wind up, seen the release. So while the ball is coming I’m trying to position myself to get in a situation to make a play. I went up with one hand because I wanted to be safe and I did a pretty good job tipping it and it came down to myself and the rest is history.’’
Well, not quite.
In a game that featured seven lead changes, Seattle would take a 17-13 lead on a Wilson-to-Lockett touchdown, only to see Carolina retake a 20-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. After a Janikowski field goal tied it up, McCaffrey broke free for a 59-yard run –the longest play of the season against Seattle – to set up his own TD and make it 27-20.
On a day when the run game stalled and the Seahawks had to win it through the air, Wilson led Seattle to another quick score, a 35-yard touchdown pass to David Moore on a fourth-and-3 to tie it with 3:26 left.
The narrative that developed afterward was that Seattle proved it could win a game through the air – Wilson threw for a season-high 339 yards – but Wilson considered it no big deal.
“We can do whatever we want (offensively),’’ he said.
However, before Wilson, Lockett and Janikowski could team up to win it, there was one more big play to make.
With 1:50 left, Carolina had a third-and-7 at the Seattle 37. A first down might have meant the Panthers being able to run out the clock and set up a closer kick for Gano.
But after Newton hit D.J. Moore in the flat, Seattle rookie cornerback Tre Flowers brought him down, limiting him to a 3-yard gain, a play many later considered crucial.
“That was a heck of a big play,’’ Carroll said, adding that Moore had “just a wide-open space’’ in which to run if he hadn’t been tackled.
“I was just mad he caught it,’’ said Flowers, who said he read the route at the snap to get in position to make the tackle. “But I got him down.’’
Gano then missed, Janikowski didn’t, and the Seahawks celebrated another potentially season-defining win in Carolina, having also had pivotal victories here in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
“This win just shows our resilience,’’ McDougald said. “How gritty we are. That no situation is going to stop us from prevailing. We always feel like if we get the ball back to the offense we’ve got a shot to win and today proves that.’’
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