The safety might be the most important piece of the Seahawks’ top-ranked defense and losing him leaves a dark cloud over the victory against the Panthers.

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The Seahawks lost by outscoring the Panthers 40-7 Sunday night.

In a crushing defeat, they ran at will through Carolina’s defense and found the end zone four times.

Sure, Seattle began the night 7-3-1 and ended it 8-3-1, further strengthening its grip on the NFC West in the process. But even though Vegas paid out bettors who picked the Hawks, no true 12 feels like a winner right now.

“This game has been so good to me no regrets,” Seahawks safety Earl Thomas tweeted just before halftime. “A lot is running through my mind including retirement thanks for all the prayers.”

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Early in the second quarter, Thomas collided with teammate Kam Chancellor while attempting to intercept a pass. He landed awkwardly and, after being carried off the field by two members of the Seahawks support staff, was carted off to the locker room.

Nobody was quite sure as to the extent of the injury, even though the initial announcement from the team listed Earl’s return as questionable. Then, Thomas took to Twitter and delivered his most bruising hit of the season.

By halftime, the Seahawks confirmed that he suffered a fracture in his lower left leg. After the game, Seattle coach Pete Carroll confirmed he would be out for at least six weeks.

And while the “retirement” pondering was probably just an emotional reaction to searing pain, the Seahawks are still without one of the game’s best safeties. Had to make it hard to dance to that postgame victory music in the locker room.

“At a time like this, it’s a tragic moment,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. “He’s a master of his craft, he does everything the right way, he plays the game the way it should be played — so it’s sad when he goes down like that.”

The nation knows Sherman as the face of the Seahawks’ defense, but it’s debatable whether he is the most talented player on that side of the ball. The generally more understated Thomas, 27, has long been the linchpin of the Legion of Boom.

Earlier this year, ESPN ran a feature that assigned Hall of Fame probabilities to various active players, and Thomas was the most likely Seahawk at 99 percent. His presence on the field tends to confirm such acclaim … as does his absence.

When Thomas sat out against the Buccaneers with a hamstring strain last week, Tampa Bay scored touchdowns on its first two drives. The second came on a 23-yard pass to Mike Evans, who beat Sherman on the route.

There is no direct evidence that Thomas would have prevented either of those scores had he been on the field, but it’s probably safe to assume. After all, on the first play following his injury vs. the Panthers, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton connected with Ted Ginn Jr. for a 55-yard touchdown pass.

But the mood among most Seahawks Sunday wasn’t one of concern for their future so much as it was sorrow for their teammate. Thomas is as beloved in the locker room as he is revered between the lines.

At halftime, free safety Steven Terrell — Earl’s replacement — tried to comfort Thomas and tell him that he was praying for him. But all Thomas wanted to do was give Terrell tips.

“That’s just Earl being Earl — he’s not even worried about himself,” Terrell said. “Man, seeing your brother go down like that is very tough.”

Perhaps most distressed was Chancellor, whose shin essentially broke Thomas’ leg. Even though it was an accident, the first thing Kam told the media after the game was how bad he felt.

Later, a reporter mentioned how Thomas tweeted that Chancellor owes him a steak for taking him out. Chancellor smiled.

“If I owe him a steak, I’ll get him three,” Chancellor said. “That’s my brother right there.”

To be fair, the Seahawks held Tampa Bay to 14 points last week and surrendered just one score sans Thomas Sunday. Seattle’s defense is loaded, and despite playing without Michael Bennett and Chancellor for long stretches this year, manages to be tops in the NFL in scoring defense.

The Hawks still have Bobby Wagner leading the league in tackles and in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year. They still have Sherman playing at an elite level, as he leads the team with four interceptions.

They have Cliff Avril tallying 10 sacks, Frank Clark racking up 7.5 and K.J. Wright coming up with huge play after huge play. They even have Chancellor and Bennett back on the field.

Even so, this defense was built around the secondary, and Thomas may be the most essential component of that unit. Losing him has to feel bad more than winning feels good.

You’d like to think Earl will recover from this injury at some point down the road. Whether the Seahawks can recover from his absence this season remains to be seen.