Bobby Wagner sat at his locker in full uniform for almost a half-hour after this all came to a sudden, thudding end — the way things do for every team but one each season.
To Wagner’s left in the visitors’ locker room, Earl Thomas also wasn’t moving out of his locker, uniform or mood.
Yet as they eventually left Carolina and the 2015 season behind them, Russell Wilson and his fellow Seahawks kept their heads high.
They are proud of their comebacks this season, including one in this 31-24 loss to the Panthers at an exhaling Bank of America Stadium.
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But the Seahawks will remain pained into the summer by their starts to games. Those ruined Seattle’s reign of the NFC.
Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart ran 59 yards on Sunday’s first play from scrimmage, past Seattle defenders slipping so much on new sod that they had to then change to longer cleats.
And the Panthers’ romp was on.
Wilson threw two interceptions, one of which Carolina’s Luke Kuechly returned for a touchdown on the Seahawks’ first offensive series.
And Seattle trailed 31-0 with more than 6 minutes left in first half of this divisional playoff game.
“We made a mess of it in the first half,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “The look of this game is kind of like a microcosm of the season.”
Ultimately, despite Wilson’s renewed excellence, the defense pitching a shutout for the final 2½ quarters, and the Seahawks (11-7) at their most resilient best, Seattle couldn’t overcome being down 31 points.
Wilson’s 366 yards passing and three touchdowns in the second half — his 31 completions and a career-high 48 throws in all — frantically rallied the Seahawks with 24 points.
But an onside kick failed with just over a minute remaining. That’s how Seattle’s do-it-the-hard-way season and defense of two consecutive conference titles ended.
“If we had one more drive, we would have won it,” Wilson said.
The Seahawks came within a couple of minutes and seven points from pulling off the largest comeback to a win by a road team in NFL history. They ended up eight points short of the league’s biggest rally to win by anyone, anywhere: host Buffalo’s comeback from being down 35-3 to Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers in a 1993 playoff game.
“We didn’t start the way we wanted to,” said Wilson, who set Seahawks records with 4,024 yards passing, 34 touchdowns and a completion rate of 68.1 percent in the regular season. “But the best part about our football team showed up — and we’ve been doing it all year ... our resilience. We were down and out early in the year. But we kept believing.
“We were mentally strong. ... We are going to come back stronger. ... You can’t find anybody that would fight the way we fight.”
The Seahawks began this season 0-2, 2-4 and 4-5. Then a 7-1 run got Seattle to within two games — or perhaps a game and a little bit more time on Sunday — of becoming the first team in the salary-cap era to reach three straight Super Bowls.
The problems with pass protection by the offensive line ruined the first half of the season and, ultimately, had Seattle on the road as a wild card for these playoffs. Those issues returned Sunday.
Wilson got hit 14 times and sacked five times. Carolina’s Mario Addison ripped left tackle Russell Okung’s arm out of its shoulder socket on his way to the hit that forced Wilson’s second interception of the first half. Okung did not return.
“It was my fault,” Wilson said. “We got behind, and I take the blame for that.”
Yet Wilson’s 31 completions were one short of his career high, set in another rally that begin this schizophrenic Seahawks season, a September overtime loss at St. Louis.
Marshawn Lynch returned from abdominal surgery to play for the first time since Nov. 15. But his part in the game plan disappeared within the abyss the Seahawks fell into so quickly.
Wilson’s interception, which Kuechly returned 14 yards, made it 14-0 for Carolina after only two offensive snaps by the Seahawks. Wilson’s throw, intended for Lynch, came so quickly because the quarterback was getting hit by Kawann Short, Carolina’s leading sack man. Lynch never got his head around to see the hurried pass over the middle, and behind him, go into Kuechly’s arms.
Lynch finished with 20 yards on six carries. He quietly walked out the door from the locker room to the team’s bus without saying anything publicly, as always. Instead of Lynch’s running, Seattle had to rely on Wilson’s throwing to come back.
With 6 minutes left in the first half, the total yards were Panthers 213, Seahawks 17. Carolina had 14 more points than Seattle had yards and led 31-0.
Overlooked amid all that went wrong for Seattle in the first half: The Seahawks used 55 of the final 65 seconds around midfield, with a running play to Lynch and short pass over the middle to Luke Willson. That loss of time for minimum gain resulted in Steven Hauschka having to try for a 55-yard field goal instead of a closer one. His kick was a yard short and two or so yards wide right.
Those three lost points loomed over the Seahawks’ entire second-half rally. They had to make up three scores in the fourth quarter instead of two, and two scores in the final 2:30 instead of one.
But then, as Carroll said, “sometimes halftime is the best thing to happen to us.”
Forced by the huge deficit to throw on just about every down, Wilson found Jermaine Kearse for a 13-yard touchdown only 93 seconds into the third quarter. He found rookie Tyler Lockett for a 33-yard touchdown midway through the third.
And with 6:04 left in the game, Wilson scrambled on third-and-goal from the 3. He twisted, reset his feet, then lofted a jump ball just over Carolina star cornerback Josh Norman’s leap and into Kearse’s outstretched hands.
Incredibly, Carolina’s lead was down to 31-21. The largest deficit overcome for a win in Seahawks’ history — they were down 21-0 on Nov. 3, 2013, against Tampa Bay — was improbably within reach.
Seattle got the ball back at its own 22 with 2:49 left after yet another defensive stop. On third down, Wilson completed another throw, while getting nailed yet again, to Doug Baldwin. Seattle was at the Carolina 13 with 90 seconds to go.
On third-and-15, Wilson overthrew Kearse in the end zone. The receiver didn’t jump because, he complained in vain, he’d been held down by the waist. Hauschka kicked a 36-yard field goal to make it 31-24 with 1:12 left.
Where was Chris Matthews when Seattle needed him — again?
The Seahawks’ hero of last year’s NFC championship game, for recovering an onside kick, has since been released and claimed by Baltimore. This time, Hauschka’s onside kick bounded into the arms of Carolina Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis. Davis held on to the ball as Seattle’s Derrick Coleman took his legs out from under him.
The Panthers (16-1) advanced to next weekend’s conference title game, in Charlotte, against NFC West-champion Arizona (14-3).
Wilson finished his fourth season, and he’s 27. Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman said, responding to those who say the Seahawks’ run is over, “People get confused. They think our quarterback is 38.
“We are going to be special for a long time.”
Wilson’s played in two Super Bowls, winning Seattle’s first one two seasons ago. Yet he said this season — in which he became the first NFL player to throw for 4,000 yards, rush for 500 and throw at least 30 touchdown, and when his Seahawks went from buried to brilliant to ultimately beaten by too much too quickly at Carolina — was his most enjoyable yet.
“Honestly, my most fun year,” Wilson said. “Just because of the leadership on the team. And the fact that the overcomers that we have are pretty special.”