In a nearly empty CenturyLink Field locker room, members of the Seattle Seahawks secondary held a long, quiet conversation, attempting to come to grips with what had just happened.
An hour or so earlier, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had connected with tight end Greg Olsen in the final minute of the game to give Carolina a victory, and drop the Seahawks to 2-4. Olsen was so open not because he burned a Seahawks defender, but because Seattle's safeties were playing one defense, while Richard Sherman had received the correct call and was playing a different coverage, meaning he and Earl Thomas both played the underneath coverage while nobody was over the top to take away the deep ball.
Three months later, the Seahawks will face the Panthers again, this time in Carolina in the divisional round of the playoffs. And nine wins later, the Seahawks are confident heading into this game that they are a much improved team, particularly on defense, than the one that lost that game in Week 6.
"I think I was just trying to have a good attitude about it and not fuss any nobody," Thomas said of that postgame meeting. "You just felt helpless at that time, because it was over, but we overcame that."
The Seahawks have gone 9-2 since that loss, including last week's wild-card round victory over the Vikings, and a defense that ranked 11th in the NFL in points allowed (20.8) after that game finished the season No. 1 in that category (17.3). Seattle will head to Carolina having won six straight road games, allowing only one offensive touchdown in those six games.
"I don't think we're the same team as that game," linebacker Bruce Irvin said. "We had a lot of stuff that needed to be corrected, from on-field stuff to off-field stuff. I think they kind of caught us at the right time—we were in a transition period—but I feel like we're back on the right track, and I feel like this is going to be a completely different game."
The most obvious reasons for the Seahawks to feel better about this game than the October meeting are personnel related. Bobby Wagner missed that game with a pectoral injury, which not only meant the Seahawks were missing their Pro-Bowl middle linebacker, it meant K.J. Wright was playing out of position as well to fill in for Wagner. The Seahawks still had Cary Williams starting at right cornerback in that game as well, and are now using a combination of DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane to upgrade that position.
"We're not the same team, that's for sure," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "Critical pieces were missing in that game. Obviously, Bobby's starting, Bobby will be back for this game. Jordan Hill will be back for this football game. Jeremy Lane will be back out there for this football game. All those guys right there are critical pieces to what we do, and who we are. That's exactly right. We're not the same. We do feel as though we're better, but it makes no difference if we don't go out there and uphold our standard.
"It's execution. It's us living up to our standard. You can nitpick and figure out and put a name behind anything that you want, but it's us doing what we do best, and upholding our standard."
But the improvements to Seattle's defense go beyond personnel upgrades. For various reasons, Seattle's defense just wasn't always on the same page early this season; the chemistry that helped the Seahawks become the best defensive team in the NFL over the past few seasons would come and go. Add to that a few missing key players, Thomas missing the preseason while recovering from shoulder surgery and Kam Chancellor sitting out the first two games, and you had the formula for a usually dominant defense to look temporarily mortal.
"We didn't have Bobby, Kam was still going through some stuff, I was still going through some stuff with my shoulder, the chemistry wasn't there," Thomas said.
Asked if that loss to Carolina helped get the chemistry back, Thomas replied, "Every loss did."
To call that Carolina loss a definitive turning point would be oversimplifying things. The Seahawks have played great since that game, and they have also struggled, and getting from 2-4 to the divisional round of the playoffs wasn't a smooth, linear climb to end up one of the final eight teams standing. But what came out of that game was one step in the process of turning this season around, one example of how the Seahawks are too resilient to let a busted coverage at the worst possible time or a bad start to the season be their undoing. Like all good teams, the Seahawks were able to weather a storm early and be one of the last teams standing when it matter most.
"I think you can never count anybody out in a season, especially in the NFL," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "Everybody seems like the Super Bowl contender in the beginning of the season, but you have to let the season unfold. I think when you see the season unfold, I think you see the same teams every year end up back in the same situation. It's not a surprise that the Cardinals are in the playoffs, or Green Bay, or the Panthers, or us. It's not a surprise that Pittsburgh or Denver and New England and all those guys are in the playoffs. Those teams, they seem to take hold of the season every year. I think we're one of those teams, we stay, we develop our team. We don't live on the last win. We keep going on and on."
Take a walk down memory lane with photos from all 10 Divisional playoff game the Seahawks have ever played, including last year's matchup against the Carolina Panthers who the Seahawks face once again in a Divisional playoff game on Sunday.