CHARLOTTE—Moments after the Seahawks' flight from Charlotte to Seattle took off, Pete Carroll's voice came over the plane's intercom.
With the Seahawks improving to 11-3 with Sunday's win over the Panthers, and with the Rams losing in Dallas, Seattle was about to clinch a playoff berth, its eighth in 10 seasons under Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Then, just before takeoff, a Julio Jones' touchdown catch gave the Falcons a dramatic win over the 49ers that moved the Seahawks back into first place in the NFC West.
Carroll passed the details of those two Seahawks-friendly results to the plane—though most already had seen the Falcons' touchdown crowding around phones prior to takeoff—then he punctuated his message by shouting, "The Seahawks are in the playoffs!"
From the players in first class to those in the back of the plane, and from just about everywhere in between, cheers erupted as the plane climbed toward cruising altitude.
With a first-round bye, the division still in play, the Seahawks have bigger goals than a playoff berth, to be sure, but they could also take joy in what took place Sunday because players and coaches alike understand just how difficult it is to accomplish what they have thus far in this season.
At 11-3, the Seahawks are in the playoffs for the seventh time in the past eight years, posting winning records all eight of those seasons, and they have now won 10 or more games in seven of the past eight seasons, and 11 or more four times. For some perspective, the Seahawks had five double-digit win totals from their inaugural 1976 season through 2011.
"It was a really big accomplishment to get this win today," Carroll said following his team's 30-24 win over the Panthers. "… I'm really proud of getting to 11 wins at this time with a chance to get more, I'm fired up for this team. They deserved to be sitting where they're sitting and they're ready to go for it. So we'll see what we can get done."
When linebacker Bobby Wagner was asked about his team's long run of winning seasons and playoff berths, he said that consistency "means a lot" but also noted with a laugh that the group of players who have been a part of it all is "like three people now," meaning himself, quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker K.J. Wright. But the team's ability to get back to the postseason year after year after year despite all of that turnover that is inevitable in the NFL speaks to the jobs Carroll and Schneider have done, as well as to the leadership of the handful of veterans who have been around for a long time.
"Coach Carroll, the way he coaches and how consistent he is and the way he pushes that message into our game, you can see us trying to be as consistent as the message is," said Wagner, who had 10 tackles and an interception. "When you have consistency, you create things like this. We're 11-3 with two games left. Thinking about last year, it took us all the way to the end to get 10 wins, so this is a good position to be in."
Those veterans who have been around say these past two years have been particularly rewarding as the Seahawks have exceeded expectations while going through a pretty significant roster overhaul that has seen the departure of big-name players like Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Doug Baldwin, to name a few. Despite all the changes, the Seahawks are 17-4 over the past 21 regular-season games since starting last year with a 4-5 record through nine games.
"I think it's a testament to our culture, a testament to our organization, a testament to Coach Carroll, to John Schneider as well, and the guys that they have brought in, high character guys, guys who want to work, guys who are dedicated to the game," Wilson said. "It has been an awesome joy ride really the past two years of what we have been able to kind of reestablish. We had so many great players and everything else, a lot of people thought we were going to be down and out. Bobby and I really talked about, that was going to happen. We were going to make sure we did everything we could. We got good guys in the draft, got good guys that we've signed and that's been huge. I think about last year how we were able to sustain and to play throughout the games and find a way. We started off a little slow and then we got hot there. We were able to stay the course, and then coming into this season, we were really excited about all of the guys we had."
The win also made the Seahawks 7-1 on the road this season, their best road record in franchise history. Sunday's wasn't a perfect game from start to finish—the Seahawks built a big lead early and led 30-10 in the fourth quarter, but allowed Carolina to get back in the game with two late touchdowns—but it was overall another very strong performance on the road, one that was good enough to get the Seahawks to 5-0 this season in games kicking off at 10 a.m., pacific time.
"It got a little tough at the end, but we did a lot of really good things today again on the road," Carroll said. "To put this season together on the road is something to be proud of. It's hard to do this. It's really important to us. We don't know what's going to happen next, but if we get a chance to play again in the post-season, we may have to go on the road, and we will have done everything we could to be ready for that. It is really what we were doing from day one in preseason. When you get on the road, we want to get used to it and get comfortable with it, and our guys have done a fantastic job of rising up and being able to play no matter what the situation and what the time and whatever, and that's a real strength to have that."
The Seahawks obviously hope to be done with road games, but they also know that if their postseason journey takes them on the road, they'll feel good about their chances playing anywhere.
"Seven road wins, that's very impressive," said Wright, who had the first multi-interception game, at any level, of his playing career. "It's just us on the road, we've found a way to do it, especially on the east coast, waking up super early, we just found a way to get it done… If we do have to go on the road in the playoffs, we're ready for it."
The Seahawks' postseason fate will be determined over the next two games, but for now they were able to fly home knowing they had already accomplished something pretty special, because, as the post-takeoff announcement succinctly put it, "The Seahawks are in the playoffs!"
Game action photos from the Seattle Seahawks' Week 15 matchup against the Carolina Panthers.