SEATTLE -- The Carolina Panthers seemingly were out of control two months ago when they fired coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start and a week later traded star running back Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers.
There was the perception around the league they were going to tank the rest of the season for the first pick of the 2023 NFL draft.
Now they are in control of their playoff future.
Sunday’s 30-24 victory against the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field put Carolina (5-8) in position to win the NFC South outright and make the playoffs with victories in the final four games against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8), Detroit Lions (6-7), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) and New Orleans Saints (4-9).
A 9-8 finish would give the Panthers the tiebreaker over Tampa Bay and Atlanta (5-8) if they all finished with the same record.
The Panthers still are a longshot to win the NFC South. According to ESPN’s playoff predictor, the Bucs have an 82.3% chance of winning the division and automatic berth into the playoffs, followed by Carolina at 14%, Atlanta at 3.2% and New Orleans at 5%.
But the emotion of interim coach Steve Wilks and his players on Sunday as they celebrated their first road win of the season was every bit as intense as it was in 2015, when Carolina left this field with a 5-0 record coming off a bye and on its way to an NFL-best 15-1 record.
“With everything we’ve gone through, they’ve gone through, with the coaching changes, getting rid of players, [the perception of] our organization trying to tank it, all those different things, and to see how those guys responded ... it is pretty thrilling," said Wilks, his voice hoarse and full of emotion after the game.
Carolina is in this position in large part because of Wilks, who is making a strong case to become the full-time coach next season. He’s gone 4-4 since replacing Rhule, including a 3-0 record at home, where Rhule was 5-15 in two-plus seasons.
He has given the team the identity Rhule never could, a foundation built on an aggressive defense and an offense that is relentless with the run.
That never was more evident than on Sunday as the Panthers won two games in a row for the first time this season. They intercepted Seattle quarterback Geno Smith twice and were close to a third. They rushed 46 times for 223 yards, including 68 yards on a 10-play, 74-yard drive in the fourth quarter to make it 27-17.
“Nothing more demoralizing than having a ball run on you in the fourth quarter and not being able to stop it," said Wilks, a defensive-minded coach who understands what that means.
The Panthers are becoming one of those power-running teams opponents don’t want to see in the playoffs. They ran 39 times for 199 yards and two touchdowns between the tackles on Sunday.
They now lead the NFL in rushes between the tackles with 199 and are second in rushing yards between the tackles with 926 since Week 7.
The run game took off after Wilks took over and McCaffrey was traded following a loss to the Los Angeles Rams that dropped the team to 1-5. Carolina has averaged 154.6 yards with 10 rushing touchdowns the past seven games after averaging 90.3 with three rushing touchdowns the first six.
“Everything we do starts up front on both sides of the ball," Wilks said.
It’s a mentality Wilks promised when he took over. It’s a mentality the players have fully bought into.
Quarterback Sam Darnold, 2-0 as the starter since coming off injured reserve and replacing Baker Mayfield, credits Wilks.
“With him being able to be honest with us and tell us exactly how we're going to play the game and what we want to do and not shy away from that," said Darnold, who completed 14 of 24 pass attempts for 120 yards and a touchdown. “Early on, even when we were losing some games, it was, ‘Hey, trust the process and trust the game plan.’"
Wilks called this a statement win in a playoff atmosphere but reminded it means nothing if the Panthers don’t follow it up with a strong performance at home against Pittsburgh in Week 15.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson, speaking for most in the locker room, said Wilks is making his case to be the full-time coach.
“He’s a true alpha, he’s a true leader," he said. “Guys follow behind him. He’s a great coach, and I hope he’s here for a while."
After Wilks was named interim coach, Carolina owner David Tepper said Wilks had to do an “incredible job" to be considered for the full-time job. Thompson described the job so far as “amazing."
“I don’t see why he’s not the best fit for this," he said.
Wilks isn’t looking past the next game regarding his future, just as he doesn’t want his players to look past the next game regarding the team’s future.
“For 13 weeks I said I was going to do it my way with players, coaches and the mentality and the culture that I wanted to create," Wilks said. “So our mindset doesn't change. It’s all about winning today.
“We will figure out what happens [with the rest] at the end."