CHARLOTTE—The best thing you can say about the Seattle Seahawks' performance on Sunday is that they had enough fight and determination in them to nearly overcome a 31-point halftime deficit on the road against a team that went 15-1 this season. Of course the worst part about that for the Seahawks is that they were in a position where attempting an unprecedented comeback was even necessary in their divisional-round playoff game against the Panthers.
For a half, the Seahawks looked as bad as they have in years, then in the second half they nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages, but ultimately they ran out of time, and the Panthers escaped with a 31-24 victory that sends them to the NFC championship game and ends Seattle's season.
"Well, we made a mess of it in the first half," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. "Just couldn't get started well, and Carolina took advantage of all the opportunities, did a great job early on to put us in a situation where it was 31-zip. Our takeaway from this is there wasn't a guy in the locker room who didn't think we were going to win the football game. There wasn't a word in that direction for a moment. The demonstration of what happened in the second half proves it. These guys totally believed they could do whatever they've got to do, they believe in one another, they love each other, and they care about it so much they do stuff like that and show you who they are and what they're all about."
Here are five takeaways from Seattle's season-ending loss to the Panthers:
1. That game was a lot like Seattle's 2015 season.
The Seahawks started out poorly, it looked like they had no chance of recovering from that early deficit, but then they came storming back and almost accomplished something very special. That can be a description both of Sunday's game, and also Seattle's season, which saw the Seahawks overcome a 2-4 start by winning nine of 11 games to get to this point.
"We look at this game as kind of a microcosm of the season," Carroll said. "We struggled so much early in the year to get going, it took us a long time, then when we finally did, we caught fire and we got rolling. Everybody in here just feels like we just ran out of time. There wasn't quite enough time to get this thing done. I couldn't be more proud of the way everybody hung and fought, and not just for today, but how this team plays, how we've been all season long. The message was very clear about what they're all about, they proved it today. Unfortunately it was just a terrible start and we didn't have enough time to overcome it."
That same resilience that helped the Seahawks overcome their slow start to the season is what helped them come back from a 9-0 deficit in the fourth quarter last week, and that has allowed them to win five postseason games under Carroll after being down nine or more points, while losing three of them. But just as the comeback came up short, the Seahawks' season finished two games short of a third straight Super Bowl appearance.
"The best part about our football team—we've been doing it all year—is our resilience," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "A lot of people counted us down and out early in the year, but we kept believing in each other, we kept believing in our coaches, we kept believing in our fans, kept believing in ourselves individually, and we overcame a lot, a lot of adversity. Even in this game, we were obviously down to a team that's played great all year, they were up 31-0, and we had no doubt in our minds we could win the game. We showed that all the way to the end of game, but unfortunately we couldn't have one more drive. That's a testament to our season."
2. The Seahawks showed incredible resilience despite the end result.
As receiver Doug Baldwin noted, every team that doesn't end its season with a Lombardi Trophy is ultimately disappointed with how its season ended, so "there are no moral victories," especially not in the playoffs. But the Seahawks were able to be both unhappy with the final score and proud of the way they fought back.
"It's both," tight end Luke Willson said. "We definitely feel like we could have and should have had it, but that being said, I don't think anybody is disappointed, because guys played their hearts out today on both sides of the ball. I wonder how many other guys would have just packed it in, and you didn't see that from us at all."
Added safety Earl Thomas: "I'm very proud. Nobody should have their head down. We just got in our own way the first half.
"We're not quitting. Keep believing. I think it's very powerful when a team believes that it can get the job done. We're never out of the game, history has proven that, that's our track record that we're going to compete until the very end."
Cornerback Richard Sherman echoed the sentiment of his fellow defensive back, and really of just about everyone in Seattle's locker room.
"We battled," Sherman said. "That's all you can take out of it. Guys can hold their heads up high. We dug ourselves a big hole, and we didn't give up. We battled to the last second, to the last zero. That's all we ask our guys to do, and that's what we did.
"We had a chance to be special again, we didn't get it done. So obviously we're disappointed. But we also understand how much adversity we went through and the kind of fight our team has and the resolve our team has, and we're proud of ourselves, we're proud of our teammates. Obviously we didn't get it done, but we'll hold our heads high."
3. Early miscues were incredibly costly.
There's a flip side to such a big comeback effort, of course, which is how the Seahawks found themselves in such a big hole in the first place. On the first play from scrimmage, the league's No. 1 run defense was gashed for a 59-yard gain by Jonathan Stewart, who found his way out of traffic at the line of scrimmage, then turned what was already a solid gain into a massive one when Thomas lost his footing. Three plays later, Stewart was in the end zone. Then on Seattle's first possession, Wilson tried to hit Marshawn Lynch with a short pass, but Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted the ball and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown.
Sometimes teams get away with a turnover here, or with allowing a big run there, but good teams like Carolina are able to capitalize on those mistakes, and turn a couple of missed tackles/slips on one play and a poor throw under pressure on another into a quick 14-0 lead.
But it would be unfair to the way Carolina played to suggest two scores determined what happened in the game, or even that half. Seattle couldn't stop the bleeding after giving up that early lead, with the Panthers putting together touchdown drives of 86 and 54 yards in the second quarter while also getting a field goal off another Wilson interception, which came when he was hit while throwing.
"They played better than us," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "I know you guys are looking for a reason why we lost the game. We just lost the game. They played better than us in the first half, we played better in the second half, but when you're playing against great teams like that, you can't afford great teams like that."
Had the Seahawks been able to get just one or two more stops before they got going, the story might have had a different ending, but in the end the massive first-half deficit was a bit too much to overcome.
"That happened, OK," Carroll said of the 14-0 deficit. "Then we needed to stop it somewhere in there so it's a 17-point first half, not a 31-point first half… It was just not well done in any phase of it. We didn't do anything the way we wanted to do it. Why? I don't know that. If I knew that, it wouldn't have happened. That is what it is, then you've got to deal with it."
4. Russell Wilson bounced back well from two early interceptions.
Like the entire team, Wilson struggled at times in the first half. Trying to escape pressure and find Lynch on Seattle's first possession, Wilson didn't see Kuechly, and the All-Pro linebacker made the Seahawks pay in the biggest way possible.
"I was trying to get to the check-down, and it's my fault," Wilson said. "He made a good play. That's on me."
Wilson's second interception was more a case of unfortunate circumstances, as left tackle Russell Okung injured his shoulder while blocking on the play, which led to Wilson getting hit as he threw. By halftime, Wilson had completed 10 of 17 passes for 111 yards, the two interceptions and a 38.7 passer rating. But when the Seahawks needed Wilson and the passing game in the second half, Seattle's Pro-Bowl quarterback went back to playing like the version of himself that finished the season throwing 24 touchdowns to just one interception over the final seven games of the season.
In the second half, Wilson went 21 for 31 for 255 yards and three touchdowns, giving him 366 yards for the game, the second-highest total of his career in both regular-season and postseason games (385 at Atlanta Falcons in 2012 playoffs).
"I thought he was phenomenal," Carroll said. "I don't know how much more you could expect of him. He ran, threw it, he managed the game, he was in it the whole time. He was right on point with it, gave us chances throughout. There's always some balls—we missed the double move for a big touchdown—but all in all he gave us a chance to do it."
5. The "Pedestrians" were outstanding.
Of course, for Wilson to put up those big numbers in the second half, somebody had to be catching the ball, and Seattle's receivers gave a glimpse of just how productive they can be when given enough opportunities. Jermaine Kearse finished with a team-high 110 receiving yards on 11 catches and had two touchdowns, Baldwin had 82 yards on eight catches, and Lockett had 75 on three catches, including a phenomenal 33-yard touchdown catch on an equally impressive throw to the back of the end zone.
"Jermaine was lights out," Wilson said. "… He's clutch. He's as clutch as it gets. It's been a joy to play with those guys all year, Jermaine, Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett."
And it wasn't just the numbers Seattle's receivers put up, it was the also the quality of the catches, from leaping efforts by Baldwin to toe-dragging sideline catches by Lockett to Kearse's ability to win a one-on-one battle with a well-timed jump on a fade route.
"Phenomenal," Carroll said. "They've had an incredible season, they've all had their best years ever, and they showed you why. They're really the real deal, all those guys, they all made plays. Russell was right in the middle of all of that. Fantastic job.
"Great games. Just great catches and great plays, consistent. They got pounded on a bunch of catches, but kept making plays, great job on the sideline staying in bounds, all those fantastic plays they made. They were all over the place."
For Lockett, who also had a 50-yard kick return to open the second half, this game was one more impressive one in a rookie season full of moments, which allowed Lockett to earn first-team All-Pro and Pro-Bowl honors as a returner while also setting a franchise rookie record for all-purpose yards.
"He played fantastic," Baldwin said. "I can't say enough about Tyler Lockett and his mentality and his work ethic and the way he approaches the game… He has raised the bar for any rookie that wants to come in here. I'm excited for his progress and I'm excited for his future, because it's very bright."
The Seahawks postseason run comes to an end in Charlotte with the 31-24 loss to the Panthers who advance to the NFC Championship.