[caption id="attachment_27746" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Fill-in tight end Luke Willson won the game for the Seahawks today with his 23-yard touchdown catch with 47 seconds remaining (AP Photo/Chuck Burton).[/caption]
CHARLOTTE, N.C. Russell Wilson walked into the Seahawks’ huddle with a message -- and a mission.
Less than 5 minutes remained in a game that for the first 55 had been ugly, about as ugly an autumn Sunday as 77 degrees with no clouds in North Carolina can be.
Wilson and Seattle were down 9-6 to Carolina. They were 80 yards from the end zone. They were 4:37 away from a defeat mired in missed opportunities that would have made this the Seahawks’ longest week since, oh, last week.
The third-year quarterback singled out in one national story recently for being the reason the Super Bowl champions and their locker room were allegedly divided got on one knee in the middle of the field. He looked up at his teammates standing around him. He laughed. He smiled. He issued a calm, commanding directive.
“There is no doubt,” Wilson told the Seahawks. “There is no doubt.”
With Wilson when the game is on the line late, there rarely is.
Staring down a defeat that would have sent the Puget Sound region into a civic crisis, Wilson led the decisive, 80-yard drive with his arm and his legs. He ran twice for 21 yards. He completed all four of his throws for 53 yards, the only time he completed four in a row in his uneven day.
The last connection went for 23 yards to Luke Willson with 47 seconds left. The fill-in tight punctuated his second career touchdown catch by slamming the ball off the painted-black, end-zone grass. The spike seemed to release three weeks of Seattle stress.
Two sacks by Bruce Irvin on Carolina’s final, futile drive ended the Seahawks’ 13-9 victory that was as close to a season saver as a game in October can be.
“He’s is truly an extraordinary player in the fourth quarter,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Wilson.
And this was a truly extraordinary victory.
It revives a season that was on the precipice of disarray. Instead of 3-4 and on a three-game losing streak with every national outlet except Popular Mechanics descending on them this week to chronicle its demise, Seattle is 4-3 and returning home for games against winless Oakland and the New York Giants the next two weeks.
“Oh, we needed it, man,” rush end Bruce Irvin said. “I felt like we were right at the point in the season where we were going to continue to go down, or we were going to turn it around.”
Asked if this one was perhaps more important than most of the 31 other wins in 43 games the Seahawks have had the last three seasons, wide receiver Doug Baldwin nodded his shaved head.
“Yeah, if we are being honest with ourselves,” Baldwin (six catches, 61 yards) said. “It means A LOT.
“This is a true character win for us, coming off two losses and all the things the media was saying about us. We showed resiliency."
Speaking of resiliency, this was Wilson’s 12th comeback victory in the fourth quarter or overtime since he became Seattle’s starter in the first game of his rookie season of 2012. That ties Wilson with Tony Romo for the most comeback wins in the NFL in that span.
“We still feel like we are a championship team,” Wilson said. “We believed we were going to go down the field to make the plays and win the game.”
Baldwin noted afterward how calm Wilson was. He noticed how that in turn made all the players in the huddle confident they would not lose for a third consecutive time.
They did not.
Wilson finished 20 of 32 for 199 yards, that touchdown to Willson and an interception that should have been a touchdown catch by Marshawn Lynch just before halftime.
Irvin had the two, sealing sacks of Cam Newton in the final 42 seconds, part of three Seahawks sacks against an offensive line starting four undrafted free agents and a quarterback who finally held the ball longer than any other Seattle’s front had been chasing all season.
Seattle had four sacks in its previous five games before this revival in America’s Bible Belt.
Turns out all the unsubstantiated reports of locker-room infighting and pro- and anti-Wilson factions while under national scrutiny since the stunning trade of Percy Harvin, coming amid the franchise’s first two-game losing streak in 24 months, did have an effect on this team, after all.
A galvanizing, uniting one.
"With all the people trying to bring us down...trying to distract us, we are probably the closest we've ever been,” Wilson said.
It looked like it in the locker room afterward. All-Pro safety Earl Thomas joked with Wilson. The room was noticeably buzzing with excitement – that and a seemingly collective exhale of relief.
Next door to it, Carroll waved his left hand dismissively.
“If you think there are distractions, you are wrong,” the coach said. “We are playing football.”
They were playing football poorly until the end. They had been out-gained 143-30 to begin the game. Nineteen of the game’s first 25 minutes of ball possession went to Carolina, repeating a pattern of keep-away from Wilson that resulted in Seattle’s losses to San Diego and Dallas.
The Seahawks forced two turnovers, one them their third interception of the season, by nickel back Marcus Burley of Carolina’s shifty but risky Cam Newton in the third quarter. Burley returned that gift 24 yards to set up Steven Hauschka’s second field goal and a 6-6 tie into the fourth quarter.
But Seattle blew at least four other chances for turnovers: K.J. Wright, filling in at middle linebacker for injured Bobby Wagner, dropped a sure interception in the third quarter deep in Carolina territory. Cornerback Tharold Simon, making his second NFL start of injured Byron Maxwell, dropped an interception that extended Carolina’s drive to its second field goal and a 6-0 lead in the second quarter.
The Panthers fumbled four times, but defensive end Cliff Avril was the only Seahawk to recover one. That came at the Seattle 16 after Newton fumbled a snap late in the second quarter, and it kept the Seahawks within one score of the lead.
It should have been 10-6 Seattle at halftime. But Marshawn Lynch, who finished with 62 yards on 14 carries, allowed what would have been a touchdown pass on a slant route to go through his hands at eye level. Wilson’s throw tipped instead into the arms of Panthers' cornerback Josh Norman in the end zone behind Lynch. That was on third and goal from the 7 in the final 30 seconds of the first half.
Wilson's third interception in 191 pass attempts this season kept Seattle somehow down only 6-3 following a first half in which Carolina pushed around the Seahawks' defense.
Lynch kicked a goal-line pylon as he walked off the field and entered the tunnel to the locker room for halftime.
“To keep the score at six all day long – they did the same thing – but for us, it was huge,” Carroll said.
Seattle was still at six and Carolina had nine when Wilson walked into the huddle with that laugh and 4:37 remaining. His meager, 77.3 passer rating fit his day.
He threw 11 yards on first down to Cooper Helfet, the Plan C tight end whom Wilson missed on a wide-open read option pass in the third quarter when he short-armed a throw that would have been a touchdown. Wilson threw 10 yards to Kevin Norwood on a pass the rookie who was inactive until the Seahawks traded Harvin didn’t appear to see until it stuck to his chest plate.
Seattle was backed up first and 15 following a false start on guard James Carpenter. Then Paul Richardson, the other rookie wide receiver to emerge from moth balls in the wake of Seattle giving up on Harvin, took off down the left side on a go route. The Panthers had to respect Richardson’s speed, so they sent two defensive backs with the wide receiver. That opened the entire left side of the field for Wilson to scramble 14 yards to midfield, restoring order to the decisive drive.
Lynch ran left for 2 yards for another first down. Wilson threw to Richardson for 9 yards to the Carolina 39. Lynch ran for another first down before the 2-minute warning. He ran again for 5 yards. Wilson kept the ball on a read-option and ran 7 yards around right end.
First and 10 at the Panthers’ 23, 53 seconds remaining. Willson, starting only because Zach Miller is recovering from ankle surgery, lined up in the right slot. On a drive earlier the tight end had committed a holding penalty and then dropped a pass on the Carolina 2 because of a jarring hit in his back. Not what he wanted to do in front of his parents who had driven here from their home in Ontario, Canada.
Yet Wilson, remember, believed. He dropped quickly out of shotgun formation, looked right at Willson running down the yard-line numbers on a seam route and fired a dart. Willson caught it in stride for the relieving score.
It is the latest in Russell Wilson’s growing Seahawks’ lore.
“For us, there were no distractions at all,” Wilson said of the extraordinary end to an extraordinary two weeks. “I think it was people trying to find ways to knock us down.
“But we just keep swinging. Keep believing in each other.
“There is no doubt we are more together than ever before.”