CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There were a few sudden, unexpected plot turns in the final chapters for the Seahawks on Sunday, but the ending was exactly what they hoped it would be: a victory that assured them a playoff berth.
Seattle’s hang-on-for-dear-life 30-24 victory over Carolina coupled with Dallas’ romp over the Rams clinched a postseason bid for the Seahawks for the eighth time in 10 seasons since Pete Carroll became the head coach in 2010.
The good news continued when Atlanta then stunned the 49ers, allowing Seattle to move not only back into the NFC West lead but also into the top spot in the entire conference.
That’s because the Seahawks would win tiebreakers with either just the Packers, if the Saints lose Monday night, or both the Saints and Packers if the Saints win and all three are 11-3 (with Seattle’s victory over the 49ers meaning San Francisco is relegated to being a wild card for now). In fact, the events of the day means that if Seattle wins its last two it is assured of no worse than the number two seed in the NFC.
And the difference in that can hardly be overstated — being the top seed means having homefield advantage through the playoffs and a bye in first round, and being number two means at least a bye and a home game. But not being division champ means being a wild card and going on the road the first weekend.
But for Russell Wilson, what might have resonated the most is that this is Seattle’s second playoff bid in two seasons since the Seahawks went through a major retooling following the rough 2017 campaign. Seattle missed the playoffs that year and said goodbye to longtime Seahawks standouts Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
Since then, Seattle has won at least 10 games in each of the past two seasons, 21-9 overall, and, as noted, is two victories away from being the No. 1 seed.
“It’s been an awesome joy ride really the past two years of what we have been able to kind of re-establish,’’ Wilson said. “We had so many great players and everything else and a lot of people thought we were going to be down and out and (middle linebacker) Bobby (Wagner) and I really talked about that wasn’t going to happen.’’
Only one of those two was really able to celebrate at the end Sunday, as Wagner had to watch the final seven minutes from the sideline due to a sprained ankle.
Wagner’s injury turned what looked like a Seahawks coronation much of the day into an unexpected — and surely for everyone in Seattle, unwanted — nail-biter.
Seattle scored the first three times it had the ball to take a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter as Wilson had a perfect passer rating in the first half, throwing touchdowns to a revived Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf.
The Seahawks then used three turnovers — two interceptions by K.J. Wright and another by Wagner, who said after the game that he should be OK — to hold on to the lead.
“Big day for linebackers,’’ Wright said with a wide smile, then he said that he’d had a dream Saturday night that he had two interceptions in the game (he entered the day with just three in his career).
With the score 23-10 with 7:18 left, Chris Carson — who had a career-high 133 yards — scored on a 6-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-inches play after Wilson helped persuade Carroll to go for it.
“Really wanted to make sure we got separated (and make it a three-score game),’’ Wilson said. “Sure enough, it paid dividends when we needed it.’’
As Carolina fans streamed out, Wagner was injured two plays into the next drive, which left Seattle playing without six defensive starters — the others being four inactives (defensive ends Ziggy Ansah and Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and cornerback Shaquill Griffin) and free safety Quandre Diggs, who suffered an ankle injury late in the first half.
Seattle was surviving until Wagner departed. But without their on-field leader (Wagner relays play calls and helps set alignments), the Seahawks saw the Panthers move quickly to complete a nine-play, 75-yard drive to make it 30-17 with 4:53 left.
Then, after forcing a three-and-out and getting the ball back, the Panthers drove 84 yards in nine plays to make it 30-24 with 3:14 remaining.
“It was a result of injuries, lack of communication,’’ Wright said. “We’ve got to finish way better than that. We definitely don’t want to end the game like that. It was way too close.’’
At that point, a half-full Bank of America Stadium got sort of loud, hoping for a miracle victory to save what has been a lost season.
It looked like the Panthers might get the ball back when holding penalties on Duane Brown, and then two plays later, D.J. Fluker, created a third-and-11 for Seattle at its 24 with 2:24 left.
In the face of a heavy rush, Wilson bought some time and hit Lockett over the middle for 14 yards, a trademark Seattle scramble play that has killed opponents time and again.
Turns out, Seattle would have had the first down anyway, thanks to an illegal contact penalty on Carolina.
But it felt better to earn the first down that allowed the Seahawks to run out the clock.
And as Carroll said later, “Obviously we needed to do that.’’
No doubt. Who knows what would have happened if Seattle had to punt there? But things just seemed to go right for the Seahawks when they really needed it.
Seattle caught two big breaks when a penalty nullified one potential Carolina recovery of a Wilson fumble and a replay overturned a fumble by C.J. Prosise, the latter of which would have been at the Seahawks’ 15 late in the first half.
But the Seahawks also made much of their success, especially early.
After the 28-12 face-plant last week against the Rams, there was much soul-searching, especially in the desire to strike first (the Rams had taken a 14-3 lead and never let up).
“We had one really kind of low last week,’’ Wilson said. “We didn’t feel like we were playing at our best. We were very diligent about what we wanted to do (against Carolina), very intentional about how we wanted to play today — keep the tempo up, be physical and get the ball down the field when we could.’’
Check, check and check.
Seattle scored on drives of 75, 80 and 75 yards the first three times it had the ball. Carson had 49 yards on six carries in the first quarter as the Seahawks set a tone of dominance up front.
And Wilson found time to take some deep shots, hitting Lockett with a 44-yard pass to set up one touchdown and then Josh Gordon on a 58-yarder to set up another.
The defense, meanwhile, allowed an early drive but then widened its alignments a little to take away some of the Panthers’ sweeps, and Carolina had only three points in a stretch of seven possessions until Wagner got hurt.
“It got a little tough at the end,’’ Carroll said.
But maybe that’s how it was meant to be in a season in which Seattle has won only one game by more than a possession.
And as Wagner said, the story has hardly ended.
“I like where we’re going,’’ he said.
To the playoffs, and possibly beyond.