Seahawks' strong finish sets them up for season's home stretch

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Seattle Seahawks still know how to finish after all.

They were in danger of dropping yet another close game Sunday when Russell Wilson found David Moore for a 35-yard, game-tying touchdown. Seattle's defense then stiffened just in time on the Carolina Panthers' ensuing drive (which ended with Graham Gano's missed 52-yard field goal attempt), before a long pass from Wilson to Tyler Lockett set up Sebastian Janikowski's 31-yard game winner as time expired.

Take a breath, Seattle.

The Seahawks are 6-5 after their 30-27 win against the Panthers (6-5) and in excellent position for a wild-card spot as their season reaches the home stretch.

"We just came up with the big plays when we needed to," receiver Doug Baldwin said in a raucous Seahawks locker room. "We had some mishaps in the first half, which is typical. But when the game's on the line, for whatever reason, we just make plays."

That was true on both sides of the ball.

Seattle's defense allowed Carolina to march all the way to the 5-yard line on the opening possession before forcing a turnover on downs when linebackers Bobby Wagner and Austin Calitro stopped Cam Newton just short of the line to gain. It would be that kind of day for Seattle's defense -- long drives that ended with key stops.

They got another in the third quarter from safety Bradley McDougald, who had talked recently about his belief that there's a difference for a defense between a turnover and a takeaway. A turnover, in McDougald's view, is something that happens -- like a loose ball bouncing right to a defender or an overthrown pass landing in his lap. A takeaway, on the other hand, is something a defense makes happen.

The loose balls did not bounce Seattle's way Sunday as the Panthers recovered all five of their fumbles.

But McDougald left nothing to chance when he tipped a Newton throw up the seam and came down with the interception near the goal line, thwarting another Carolina scoring chance. It was Seattle's first takeaway in three-and-a-half games.

"Oh my gosh, what a play," Pete Carroll said. "To be plus-one [in turnover differential] on this day was huge. We needed it."

Seattle's last defensive stop came just before Gano's miss when cornerback Tre Flowers, credited with two of the five forced fumbles, made a tackle in space that kept DJ Moore from a first down. Flowers had another open-field tackle on third down to force a Panthers field-field-goal attempt just before halftime.

Though it rankled Carroll that his defense gave up 220 yards on the ground and a season-high 476 yards in all, he appreciated the way the group finished.

"The defense had a hard time today," he said. "[Christian] McCaffrey was awesome and Cam was awesome, but when we got them in the red zone, we stopped them. We had four big stops and they were all crucial, and the turnover was huge down there. We got them where we needed to get them enough to win the football game, but we've got a lot of work to do. We don't want to see those kinds of yards and that kind of output from the other side."

The slow start notwithstanding, this game did not follow what had become a familiar script for Seattle's offense.

Its No. 1-ranked rushing attack had produced at least 150 yards on the ground in seven straight games, something that hadn't happened since 2004. But the Panthers were intent on stopping that and effective in doing so. Some Seahawks players even said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was calling out their run plays before the snap.

Chris Carson's spectacular hurdle-turned-somersault along with his 1-yard touchdown were highlights on an otherwise quiet day for Seattle's starting running back. He carried 16 times for 55 yards and Seattle finished with only 75 yards rushing on 28 attempts.

"They're all about stopping the run," right guard D.J. Fluker said. "We was like, 'OK cool ... we're gonna pass the ball.'"

Carroll had said more than once that as well and as often as the Seahawks were running the ball, there would come a time when they'd need Wilson's right arm to carry them to a win. That time came Sunday.

Wilson delivered, especially when the Panthers blitzed. They sent five or more pass-rushers on 17 of his 33 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On those plays, Wilson went 10 of 15 for 192 yards and a touchdown -- the tying score to Moore. Wilson finished with two TDs to keep him on pace to break his previous career high of 34, no interceptions and another come-from-behind victory.

The win was the 71st in the regular season for Wilson, breaking a tie with Dave Krieg for the most in franchise history. He already held the record for combined regular-season and postseason wins with 78 entering Sunday.

Janikowski's game-winner from 31 yards out was his second of the season following the one he had against Arizona in Week 4.

The Seahawks' ability to close out games had been in question after their three most recent losses (vs. the Rams in Weeks 5 and 10, and the Chargers in Week 9). They had a chance to tie or go ahead on their final possession in all three games but failed. Sunday's win follows another strong finish last week against Green Bay, when Wilson led a late go-ahead drive and the Seahawks ran out the clock after forcing a three-and-out.

Before Sunday, anyone wanting to poke holes in Seattle's status as a playoff contender could have easily pointed to this: Only one of the five teams the Seahawks had beaten (the 6-5 Cowboys) entered Sunday with a winning record. Two (Arizona and Oakland) had only two wins apiece.

Wonder no more whether the Seahawks are playoff-caliber after this win. It came in an early kickoff, on the East Coast against a Panthers team that had won 10 straight at Bank of America Stadium dating to last season.

"Regardless of what anybody says, this was an important game for us," Baldwin said. "We needed to win this game to keep our playoff hopes alive."

This is how important the game was for the Seahawks: Had they lost to the Panthers, they would have had a 26.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to live projections from ESPN's FPI after Sunday's early games.

The win upped those odds to 74.0 percent.

So they are very much alive now, especially with a favorable remaining schedule. The Seahawks will play four of their final five at CenturyLink Field.

The lone road game is against the 2-9 49ers and one of their home games is against a Chiefs team that might take its foot off the gas by the time it comes to Seattle in Week 16. Seattle also hosts San Francisco, Arizona and Minnesota and should be favored in all three.

Things are looking up for the Seahawks after their most impressive win of the season.

"Any win is huge, but this late in the season they become that much more important," McDougald said. "We're fighting for our playoff opportunity and we're on a good streak right now. ... Another huge road win. We started off slow, I felt like we got stronger as the game went on and just to win in that fashion is great."