Even as the No. 6 seed in the NFC, Seattle came into the postseason with high expectations after reaching the Super Bowl in each of the last two years. The squad was tied for the fourth-best odds to win it all before the playoffs even began, according to Odds Shark. They had poor performances early in the year, but the Seahawks had the talent and confidence to make a deep run in January.
This made the start of Sunday's game such a massive shock. The Panthers were 15-1 this season, but few people expected such a dominant performance right out of the gate. The home team moved the ball easily, while Russell Wilson struggled with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, as Carolina built a 31-0 halftime lead.
While the Internet spent the intermission mocking Seattle with various annoying memes, such as crying Michael Jordan, the Seahawks had much more purpose during the break. The players weren't giving up despite extremely long odds, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Panthers current win probability: 99.3%1/17/2016, 7:20:39 PM
After the game, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll discussed the mindset of his team:
Seattle Seahawks @Seahawks
Carroll: “There wasn’t a guy in the locker room who didn’t think we were gonna win that game." #SEAvsCAR1/17/2016, 9:48:47 PM
As we saw over the next 30 minutes of game time, this wasn't an exaggeration. The defense gave up zero points in the second half, allowing no more than 32 yards on any of the Panthers' drives. Jonathan Stewart was held to 22 yards after a huge 84-yard, two-touchdown performance in the first half, and Cam Newton had little room to work.
Meanwhile, Wilson took over with his usual dose of crazy plays no one else in the NFL could replicate. He finished with 366 passing yards and three touchdowns, all of which came in the second half. The third, to Jermaine Kearse, defied explanation:
Comeback continues. Russell Wilson throws off his back foot jusssst over Josh Norman to Jermaine Kearse for SIX. https://t.co/6bX0HJWcIk1/17/2016, 8:50:36 PM
Perhaps the most amazing part of all of this, however, was the fact that few people watching were surprised. Even with the Seahawks facing an impossible deficit, we almost expected them to get back in the game.
NBA star and Carolina fan Stephen Curry was one person with this mindset:
Stephen Curry @StephenCurry30
Had to know @DangeRussWilson was gonna make a couple plays to get the back in the game! Now we go win the game one more time on this drive!1/17/2016, 8:48:46 PM
Wilson might be considered lucky, but the luck certainly lands on his side more than it should. He turns impossible situations into positives—and he does it with regularity. Yet every time it happens, it is still one of the best plays anyone has ever seen.
Seattle got to within a touchdown before failing to recover an onside kick, which allowed the Panthers to kneel down and clinch a 31-24 victory. But anyone who turned off the game at halftime must be disappointed they didn't watch what was almost one of the best comebacks in NFL history.
Somehow, regardless of the score, the Seahawks are never out of the running. Wilson overcame a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit a week ago against the Minnesota Vikings, and as long as he is on the team, there isn't a single opponent's lead that will ever be safe. This is what he proved Sunday, even in defeat.
Of course, it's not all sunshine since Seattle was eliminated from the postseason. Anything less than a Super Bowl qualifies as a disappointment after the organization's recent success, and few players will cite a moral victory in keeping it close.
There are also plenty of question marks going forward, most notably on the offensive line, which struggled for much of the year. Only two quarterbacks were sacked more than Wilson during the regular season, and he was taken down five times against the Panthers and hit a total of 14 times. Carolina dominated in the trenches, and it is a big reason the Seahawks are not still fighting for a championship.
With the futures of players like Marshawn Lynch filled with uncertainty, the front office has a lot of work to do before Seattle can get back to being one of the league's favorites.
Despite the challenges, the Seahawks proved a lot in this defeat. They showed the rest of the league they are never out of a game, and fans must have learned now never to turn off a game featuring Wilson. The comeback fell short, but the turnaround was nothing short of amazing.
You can be certain when the games pick up again in September, Seattle will not be short on confidence.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for year-round sports analysis.