It was the worst great game in Seahawks history.
Tyler Lockett zoomed into relevance in the offense and kick-return game for the first time this season, after a long battle through a September knee sprain. He rocketed on a 75-yard fly sweep to put Seattle up 30-7 on stunned Carolina one play into the third quarter.
Thomas Rawls showed the decisive cuts and spin moves while barreling like a runaway dump truck for 103 yards and his first game with two touchdowns rushing of his career.
And that was all before halftime of the Seahawks’ 40-7 victory over the Panthers on what was a cold Sunday night in more ways than one at CenturyLink Field.
Earl Thomas broke his leg. Then Seattle’s three-time All-Pro safety tweeted in the emotional moments immediately after his injury, still during the first half, that he was contemplating retirement.
“You lose one of the best safeties to ever play the game,” quarterback Russell Wilson said, “(it’s) a devastating thing.”
With retired running back and locker-room hero Marshawn Lynch watching from the warming bench wearing a neon-orange parka on a 35-degree night, the Seahawks (8-3-1) won for the fourth time in five games. They looked as awesome offensively in this rematch of Carolina’s playoff win last January as Seattle had looked awful the week before in losing 14-5 at Tampa Bay.
“We needed that,” Lockett said of the face plant at the Buccaneers. “It showed us we can get beat.”
The league’s 27th-ranked rushing offense romped Carolina for 240 yards. That was Seattle’s most since it ran for 267 yards against Arizona on Dec. 21, 2014. The Seahawks out-gained Carolina (4-8) in offensive yards 534-271 en route to their most points since their mashing of Denver in Super Bowl 48.
Seattle maintained its three-game lead over Arizona atop the NFC West heading into next weekend’s game at Green Bay (6-6). The Seahawks also kept their place as the No. 2 seed in the conference. Four games remain in the regular season.
But Thomas will not play in any of them.
One quarter into his return from missing his first career game out of 119 last week with a strained hamstring, Thomas fractured his left leg below the knee. That was the result of a leg smash from teammate Kam Chancellor as they both leaped for a possible interception of Cam Newton early in the second quarter.
Thomas sprinted left from the middle of the field, leaped and appeared to be able to secure an interception near the Seattle 15. Chancellor, also going for the ball, had his leg slam into Thomas’. Thomas got up briefly grabbing his left leg, then crumpled back to the turf. Medical personnel ran to him from the Seahawks’ sideline.
He eventually left the field on the back of a cart into the tunnel opposite the Seahawks’ locker room, where CenturyLink Field’s X-ray facilities are located.
“You can’t make up for it,” Seattle’s Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett said. “You just try to find some others who can do half of what he does.
“(He’s) a Hall of Fame-type player. You can’t really replace those.”
Coach Pete Carroll says the injury involves a minimum six-week recovery. But the mood, talk and look sounded as though Thomas’ road back will be far longer and more difficult than that.
NBC television reported Thomas left the stadium’s X-ray room on crutches. From there, he took an almost unprecedented step.
Thomas went on his Twitter account and posted, during the first half: “This game has been so good to me no regrets.. A lot is running through my mind including retirement thanks for all the prayers.”
An NFL player never writes such commentaries on mortality and vulnerability while the game in which he was injured is still not even half over. And not just because the league’s policies prohibit players from posting on social media during games.
“Man,” Chancellor said, sighing. “I feel bad just because I was a part of that, just running into him. But it’s football. … It’s hard to see your brother go out like that. Someone you care about. Someone you came into the league with. Someone you look at as a brother.
“All I can do is send my prayers to him, and to keep checking on him as he fights this battle.”
Wilson said after talking to Thomas in the locker room he believes the tweet about retirement was “just a moment” for his friend — the implication being it will pass.
“When you get injured it becomes very emotional. Sometimes you say something you might not mean. Sometimes you say things you might mean,” he said. “So it’s one of those things where you’ve got to sit back and breathe. Let him go through his process. People will want to take it how they want to take it. But at the end of the day it’s up to him to make a decision that he wants to make.
“But right now, it’s an emotional battle.”
On the first play after Thomas’ injury, Newton targeted his replacement at free safety, Steven Terrell. Wide receiver Ted Ginn got behind linebacker Bobby Wagner 55 yards down field. He also got behind Chancellor and the late-arriving Terrell into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown pass. That cut Seattle’s lead to 10-7 with 4 minutes gone from the second quarter.
Newton did not start the game. Backup Derek Anderson did instead — and threw an interception tipped to Seahawks strongside linebacker Mike Morgan. Morgan got his first career interception while playing his first game in 2 1/2 months, after a sports-hernia surgery and eight weeks on injured reserve. Morgan returned the interception to the Carolina 8. Steven Hauschka’s field goal put Seattle ahead 3-0 just 94 seconds in.
Turned out Panthers coach Ron Rivera benched Newton because the 2015 NFL most valuable player violated the team’s dress code; Charlotte’s WBTV reported it was for not wearing a necktie.
So it’s been for the defending NFC champions in their slide this season.
“I’ve never heard of a coach sitting you down for a dress code,” Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said. “That’s a little too strict, I think. But that’s not my coach.
Rawls showed he is back as a rushing-game catalyst following a broken ankle 12 months ago and cracked fibula in mid-September. In the third game of his return he romped. He spun. He ran 8 yards for the Seahawks’ first touchdown and a 10-0 lead 8 minutes into the game.
And he trucked past five Panthers on a 45-yard touchdown run. That put Seattle up 17-7 two plays after Newton’s touchdown pass.
Lockett sparked that answer with a 46-yard return of the Panthers’ kickoff.
Rawls’ 103 rushing yards in the opening half were his most since his 209-yard domination of San Francisco as Seattle’s breakout undrafted rookie on Nov. 22, 2015.
Two more field goals by Hauschka gave Seattle a 23-7 lead at halftime. Seattle’s 309 yards by the break were the most in a half for the offense this season. It was 64 yards more than it had in Tampa all game the previous week.
On the first play after halftime, Lockett flew past Panthers and everyone else in the stadium, even past teammates’ blocks. His 75-yard touchdown off of a motion from wide left into a fly sweep around the right end made it 30-7.
“Unbelievable!” teammate Doug Baldwin said. “That sideline run he had, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody run faster on the football field.”
With all the running, Wilson didn’t need a touchdown pass. He got one with 11 minutes left, a 1-yard flip into the back, left-corner of the end zone to Jimmy Graham. That increased the Seahawks’ lead to 37-7.
Undrafted rookie backup Trevone Boykin entered with 9:28 to go.
Wilson finished 26 for 36 passing for 277 yards, a touchdown, an interception and passer rating of 92. He also ran three times for 29 yards and continued to look well beyond the sprained knee and ankle that limited him for half of September, all of October and most of November.
“We were able to do what we needed to do in the running game,” Carroll said. “That ... was what felt so good.”