Russell Wilson, Seahawks go from fearless to feared in NFC playoff race

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Seahawks have lived dangerously while clawing their way back into the NFC wild-card race. Now that they have transitioned to NFC wild-card favorites, they have become the dangerous ones.

Seattle’s defense did not dominate in Sunday’s 30-27 comeback win in Carolina. The Seahawks gave up 476 yards, 220 of which were allowed on the ground. They also did not run the ball as well as usual, with only 75 yards on 28 attempts. But they did what they’ve done in most games this season: Keep it close enough with timely plays to give elite quarterback Russell Wilson a chance.

Suddenly, all the weight of losing close games to the Broncos, Bears, Rams and Chargers this season has been lifted. These Seahawks, with so many young players around leaders such as Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner, are different from their Legion of Boom teams in many ways. But the familiar Super Bowl makeup is still there, and the past two weeks have been reminders.

“To be a championship team, you’ve got to win in the fourth. You’ve got be rock solid when it’s tough,” Wilson said. “It comes down to one thing — believing we’re going to make things happen. We’ve had a lot of great games, but we weren’t able to pull them through right there at the very end in the beginning of the season, but we had great faith that we were going to able to do that, and we trusted that.”

PLAYOFF PICTURE: Seahawks keep surging

The Seahawks had no business overcoming monster games from the Panthers’ Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey, just like the previous week when they got ripped by the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones. Seattle’s hopes of a playoff berth came down to surviving both of those games, and when things looked the most bleak, the Seahawks managed to thrive.

On Sunday, Wilson led a seven-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 35-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver David Moore on a fourth-and-3 with 3:26 left to tie the game. (He then led the game-winning field goal charge on the next drive.) Last week vs. Green Bay, the late field goal came before a seven-play, 75-yard TD drive with 5:08 remaining.

Most teams would have wilted with Newton picking apart their coverage and McCaffrey running for 237 yards from scrimmage. But the Seahawks had a chance thanks to their hanging tough in the red zone early, including a fourth-down stop and an end-zone interception.

Right after that pick in the third quarter, Chris Carson, bottled up for most of the day, delivered an inspiring 15-yard run that he finished with a front flip over a defender. Six plays later, after the deep shot to Moore, the Seahawks had their first lead at 17-10, just moments after the Panthers looked like they might start to pull away.

That sequence sums up how Seattle keeps responding this season.

“You have to have no fear, you can’t doubt,” Wilson said. “You either look forward to the moment or you fear it. That’s the difference in what we’ve been able to do the past several weeks.

“You’ve got to want to be in those tough moments. Michael Jordan, watching him play basketball, he always wanted the ball at the end of game. It’s same thing with our football team.”

WATCH: Wilson’s best throws against Panthers

In this era of analytics, there a lot of numbers that can dictate how successful a team is or is not. Given how little separates most teams in the NFL, though, the Seahawks have an advantage in their ability to come through in clutch moments.

Coach Pete Carroll doesn’t have his most talented overall team, but the Panthers game was an extension of the fine job he has done to get the Seahawks to this point after an 0-2 start with a ton of inexperience on the roster. His trademark is having equal belief in all his players regardless of their youth or draft pedigree. Carson, Moore and defensive backs Tre Flowers and Tedric Thompson were among the second-year players and rookies who helped make the difference in Carolina.

“If we play them a lot early, by midpoint these guys start to become veterans for you,” Carroll said. “We don’t feel like we’ve got any young guys anymore and so we should make better choices, better reactions because we’ve been there. That does add up.”

Carroll is fortunate to have an equalizer of Wilson’s caliber to make up for the youthful mistakes. For those who have played with Wilson for a long time and have reached the ultimate goal with him, passing on the faith and fearlessness is a rite of passage.

“This team has been resilient this entire year and the opportunity to finish shows who we are,” wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. “We have the right type of young guys. The guys who have been with the old regiment have installed that mind-set in them. We’ve had zero problems with discipline. They’ve really bought in a really large way, and you just saw it.”

Seattle’s current No. 7 position in the playoff picture is stronger than it looks. The Redskins (6-5) hold a slim conference tiebreaker for the NFC’s second wild card behind the No. 5 Vikings (6-4-1). The Seahawks have beaten the NFC East-leading Cowboys (6-5) and now the Panthers (6-5).

Washington lost QB Alex Smith for the rest of the season and likely is headed for a free-fall. Minnesota must go to New England in Week 13 before traveling to Seattle in Week 14. Inside the division, the Seahawks still have two games left against the injury-riddled 49ers, plus a home finale against the Cardinals. The Chiefs present a tough game in Week 16, but that will be back in Seattle in primetime.

By the time it’s all done, 9-7 probably will be good enough to sneak the Seahawks in, but 10-6 would make that a guarantee. They might end up playing 10 other teams that finish with winning records, and six of the 12 teams in the 2018 playoff field.

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Should the Seahawks reach the postseason as expected, they’ll be battle-tested after so many tough, tight games, including two near-misses against the Rams. And their rededication to power running with Carson, a la the best of Beast Mode, will come in handy when the weather gets worse in December and January.

Seattle could be headed to a rematch against Chicago or Dallas in the wild-card round, with LA possibly looming a third time in the divisional round. There’s no reason for the Seahawks to be intimidated by any of those potential matchups.

Where there’s Wilson and a willingness, there are always ways to emerge as a contender.

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