The running back, set to make his return Sunday after missing eight games because of an abdominal injury, is among several Seahawks who might not return next season.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The playoffs, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson agreed, are when the legacies of teams and players are truly forged.

“Yeah, I definitely think so,’’ he said this week. “As athletes, ultimately what you want to do is win. That’s the No. 1 thing that, I think for me at least, that you judge people on.

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“I think that as a team, that’s what you really care about. You don’t care about all the statistics. You don’t care about how hard the journey or how easy the journey was. Ultimately, it’s the finish.’’

The Seahawks can take another step toward a third consecutive Super Bowl — something only two teams have done — in a divisional playoff game Sunday at Carolina that kicks off at 10:05 a.m. Seattle time.

Their task is to beat a Panthers team that is one of only seven in NFL history to win 15 or more games in a season. It’s a Carolina team led by probable NFL MVP Cam Newton, who accounted for 45 touchdowns this season (35 passing, 10 rushing), and a defense that had an NFL-high plus-20 turnover margin.

For the Seahawks, it is the middle of a three-game road trek to try to reach another Super Bowl. They survived the first leg last week in breathtaking fashion when Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt in the final minute. That allowed the Seahawks to skip out of the frozen tundra of Minnesota with a 10-9 win.

The win-or-else nature of the playoffs also makes it a time when eras can come to a swift, and often shocking, end.

And it’s running back Marshawn Lynch who looms as the central figure in both of those plot lines Sunday for the Seahawks.

Lynch is expected to play for the first time since Nov. 15, having recovered from abdominal surgery that has caused him to miss eight games.

Though the Seahawks have won seven games without him, with the offense scoring 29 or more points in six of the games, any suggestion that the team isn’t better off with him has been met with a Lynch-like stiff-arm.

That’s especially true against a Carolina team that boasts one of the best front sevens in the NFL and has been as tough to run against as any team in the league.

The Panthers ranked fourth in the NFL this season in run defense at 88.4 yards per game and allowed 77 or fewer in six of their eight home games.

Lynch, meanwhile, has gained 100 or more yards in six of his 10 postseason games with the Seahawks, third-most in NFL history behind only the seven of Terrell Davis and Emmitt Smith.

“Obviously when he’s in there, I definitely think their defense has to really be in tune with, ‘OK, Marshawn’s in the game,’ ’’ Wilson said.

Still, because Lynch averaged just 3.8 yards per carry this season (the lowest of his Seattle career), has not played in two months and is coming off the first surgery of his career, how much of an impact he can make is in question.

Those factors, as well as his age (he will be 30 in April), also raise the specter that these could be Lynch’s last days with the Seahawks.

Lynch is signed through the 2017 season. But the Seahawks could save $6.5 million against the salary cap by releasing him. And with a cheaper and younger, and now proven alternative in Thomas Rawls, the writing seems to be on the wall.

The curious nature of last week’s events, when Lynch decided he wasn’t ready to play and didn’t make the trip to Minnesota, also gave vivid evidence to what has been a unique relationship between Lynch and the organization — a sequence that probably increased the odds of a parting of the ways in the offseason.

Lynch isn’t the only big name whose status seems uncertain. Linebacker Bruce Irvin, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, receiver Jermaine Kearse, left tackle Russell Okung and right guard J.R. Sweezy also are among those who can be unrestricted free agents.

Also still unresolved are the situations of safety Kam Chancellor and defensive lineman Michael Bennett. Chancellor held out the first two games this season and then returned without any changes to his contract. Bennett threatened a holdout throughout the offseason. The impasses figure to have to be broken one way or another in the offseason.

All of that presents the potential of maybe the most significant change in personnel — and personality — in the coming offseason since the current Legion of Boom/Russell Wilson era came to fruition in 2012.

But there are possibly three more games to be played until those decisions have to be made, games that will go a long way toward determining how the Seahawks are remembered.

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