Hugh Millen explains what went awry on three disastrous plays that cost the Seattle Seahawks the game Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

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Whatever praise is due the Seahawks for nearly coming back from 31-0 is exactly proportional to the criticism they deserve for putting themselves behind 31-0. Champions battle when behind, but champions don’t get down 31-0.

In five road playoff games under coach Pete Carroll, the Seahawks have been outscored 95-13 in the first half. What applies to Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers applies to seasons as well: The finishes have been brilliant, but it’s time to attach more significance to a faster start.

Panther Pro Bowl players were central to what, in my opinion, were the game’s three biggest plays. A few thoughts on each one:


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• Counter/power to Jonathan Stewart for 59 yards: From a two tight-end, I-formation set, Carolina ran a counter. Every block by the Panthers was executed as drawn on the grease board: Double-team down-block at the point of attack to neutralize tackle Ahtyba Rubin; center backside block to seal Brandon Mebane; cutoff block by backside tackle against Michael Bennett. But the block that had the biggest impact was a backside guard pulling and “logging” — the term for a pulling lineman blocking inward against a defensive end who the guard would originally intend to “kickout”. It came against Cliff Avril’s significant inward penetration.

A good kickout block by the fullback on linebacker K.J. Wright ensured that Bobby Wagner would need to fill the inside gap at the point of attack to keep the run to under 4 yards. Wagner was easily blocked due to his apparent concern for Cam Newton on a bootleg and also slipped on the soggy turf, leaving Earl Thomas to try to keep the gain to less than 10 yards. Responding to a good but not great inside cut by Stewart, the Seahawk safety also succumbed to the turf and could only watch from the ground as the Panthers enjoyed the ultimate tempo-setter.

• Interception return by Luke Kuechly for touchdown: Despite Luke Willson’s presnap motion, Carolina stayed aligned with its line to Seattle’s left, leaving Star Lotulelei in a gap to be initially double-teamed by center Patrick Lewis and right guard J.R. Sweezy. That created the matchup Carolina wanted: All-Pro tackle Kawann Short isolated against Justin Britt. Short dominated with outstanding hand-to-hand technique — for a moment during the play Short forced Britt’s left arm raised straight skyward, as if line coach Tom Cable had asked his group, “Who doesn’t want to block Kawann Short?” — then Britt left his “post foot,” that is his inside foot, anchored and he became a turnstile. Meanwhile, Carolina played a coverage termed “quarter-quarter-half,” with two defensive backs rolled to Wilson’s left — the cornerback in the flat and the safety deep and over the top to that side. Against this style of double coverage on the weak side, Wilson erred by keeping his eyes left for his entire five-step drop. Had he looked to the strong side sooner, he had an opportunity to hit Tyler Lockett on a hook route, or at least throw the ball away. Regardless, his attempted checkdown to Lynch under duress was a critical error.

• Sack by Josh Norman for loss of 14: The Seahawks had scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions of the second half to make it 31-14. Early in the third possession Seattle had stunned Carolina with a converted fake punt, so even a field goal would pull Seattle to within two scores, applying further pressure on the Panthers. But on second-and-10 at the Carolina 43, with 1:51 left in the third quarter, the reeling Panthers played a conservative coverage with two safeties deep and no credible threat of a blitz. Seattle went to an empty backfield with the three receivers to Wilson’s left and two to his right requiring linebacker Kuechly to align favoring the three-receiver side. With Doug Baldwin in the slot opposite Kuechly, Wilson understandably chose his concept on the two-receiver side: Baldwin down the middle between the safeties, and Marshawn Lynch aligned wide and running a shallow in-route. Wilson had a high/low read on the “overhang” defender, Pro Bowler Thomas Davis, aligned over Baldwin. When Davis retreated deep, Wilson from a clean pocket should have quickly whistled the ball to Lynch, who was separating from cornerback Norman in zone coverage. Instead, Wilson reacted to pass pressure that really wasn’t there and he commenced his “Fran Tarkenton” scramble routine which has been so fruitful for the Seahawks. With no one in his zone, Norman reflexively rushed the quarterback and quickly hogtied Wilson to create third-and-24 and force a punt two plays later.

The play took 6.4 seconds, plenty of time to avoid a sack. Even more frustrating for Seahawks fans, had Wilson chosen the three-receiver side, Lockett and Cooper Helfet were open for easy completions. Carolina could exhale as another of its All-Pro players re-balanced the game.

Season ball (Hawks’ Player of the Year): Though he had his least productive game Sunday, for consistent impact starting Week 1 of the preseason: Michael Bennett.