The Carolina Panthers come to Seattle this week with a timely gift for anxious Seahawks fans: context.
The 14-5 loss on Sunday at Tampa Bay left the Seahawks at 7-3-1, with a stack of nagging questions and most fans fretting over the maladies of an ineffectual offense.
Valid enough. But these are the NFL’s version of first-world problems. Would you rather be the Panthers?
Last season, sure, when the Panthers were 15-1 with MVP quarterback Cam Newton, back when they laid a wicked spanking on the Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs by roaring to a 31-0 lead at halftime.
Even though they lost the Super Bowl to Denver, the Panthers seemed likely to take over as one of the new conference powerhouses.
But suffering from the noted curse of the Super Bowl loser, they opened 1-5 this season, are now 4-7, and are a touchdown underdog to the Seahawks in their Sunday Night Football match at CenturyLink Field.
Newton, meanwhile, now ranks 27th in passer rating at 81.4, down from 99.4 last season.
Relative to this week’s matchup, the most interesting point isn’t the way the Panthers have fallen, but how the Seahawks have managed to avoid the “curse” of success.
“It’s an ongoing endeavor to try to maintain the kind of focus and discipline and continuity you need to not be up and down … like most teams,” coach Pete Carroll said on Wednesday.
The Seahawks’ success in that regard is unprecedented in the history of the NFL. In the last 94 games (including playoffs), the Seahawks have not only averaged double-digit wins, but never lost a game by more than 10 points.
Carolina lost by more than 10 twice in the first month of this season.
The secret of staying close in games like that is controlling your opponent’s scoring. While the Seahawks have ranked between No. 4 and No. 17 in total offense since 2012, the defense has finished No. 1 in points against the last four years, and ranks there again 11 games into this season.
Carroll pointed out that the Hawks started out slowly the seasons following both of their recent Super Bowl appearances.
Two factors collide in that instance. Players coming off the Super Bowl are liable to think they can win by showing up. While every opponents considers the game their “championship opportunity.”
The Seahawks see the effects of this almost every week when opponents seem to put up their best efforts. They often have difficulty sustaining that level of intensity. In a stretch in the 2014 season, 10 straight opponents lost their games the week after playing the Seahawks.
Carroll’s goal of consistent performance is rooted in his first NFL head-coaching job at the New York Jets in 1994. His Jets had just topped one of Marv Levy’s Bills’ teams, 23-3, in the season opener.
Wanting to absorb the memory after the game, Carroll walked back out into Rich Stadium and saw a display of the Bills’ division championships. They had won five of the preceding six seasons.
“That was a symbol of success,” Carroll said. “That was what you’re really after, what you’re really looking for in putting your team together — teams that can come back year after year after year and maintain a high level of performance.”
The approach to attaining that, Carroll said, was honed during his championship seasons at USC.
“We were in that mode for a very long time and I’m very comfortable with it,” Carroll said. “I think there’s a whole dialogue and mentality and approach and it’s something that you have to seed early to be able to endure it because the impact can be so overwhelming at times. I do think there’s a lot to it.”
Carroll planted that seed early with the Seahawks, never talking about Super Bowl titles, but the daily process, the competition, finding a way.
None of it means they’ll get another Lombardi Trophy, but they’re pretty clearly on their way to another division title, getting another banner to hang with the others, another symbol of consistent success.