Sports

Despite loss, path to postseason remains clear

The Seahawks went face-first into that corner Pete Carroll had thought they’d already turned.

Seattle’s 14-5 pratfall at Tampa Bay last weekend was less frustrating, damaging or embarrassing than it was humbling.

“They outcompeted us,” running back Thomas Rawls said in the visitors’ locker room at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida following the first loss in four games for the Seahawks (7-3-1).

Them’s fightin’ words for a franchise built upon Carroll’s mantra that’s plastered all over team headquarters, on walls, playbook binders and players’ minds: Always compete.

So how can Team Always Compete have lost this season to three teams to which it is superior in talent: Los Angeles (9-3) in mid-September, New Orleans (25-20) last month and now Tampa Bay? None of those victors entered their games with Seattle with a winning record. The Rams (4-7) have scored the fewest points in the league (170).

“We’d like to have a couple more wins under our belt right now,” Carroll said Monday, knowing the ones that got away.

As galling as it was not scoring a touchdown for the third game this season, the coach was dead on when he added: “But that’s not really a factor in anything that’s going on right now.”

The Seahawks remain three games ahead of Arizona, the reigning division champion, in the NFC West with five games remaining. Seattle is still the No. 2 seed in the conference, though its margin of staying there narrowed to none. The Seahawks are a half-game ahead of NFC South leader Atlanta and North-leading Detroit for second-best in the conference. Dallas (10-1) is two games clear of everyone else, 2 1/2 games ahead of Seattle, for the top seed and home field throughout the NFC playoffs.

The top two seeds get first-round byes in the playoffs before hosting a division-round game.

The Seahawks’ final five opponents all have losing records. That includes Sunday night’s foe at CenturyLink Field: Carolina (4-7) and it’s “catastrophe” offensive line — in the word of its coach, Ron Rivera.

The Seahawks travel to Green Bay (5-6) on Dec. 11. Then they host the Rams on a Thursday night and Cardinals on Christmas Eve. The regular season ends at San Francisco (1-10) on New Year’s Day.

The game against the Packers at Lambeau Field looms as the sternest test remaining. Yes, Green Bay’s defense has struggled mightily, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been far below his usual excellence. But he is 13-2 at home in December. And the Packers are already in desperation mode trying to make up ground in the NFC North division.

This weekend’s return of center Justin Britt from a sprained ankle could solve many of Seattle’s problems on its offensive line. The Buccaneers sacked Russell Wilson six times.

For all the angst that loss caused in the Pacific Northwest, a win over the teetering Panthers on Sunday night leaves Seattle one win from clinching at least a share of the NFC West title.

“It’s nice to know that there’s a few games in there,” Carroll said of his team’s cushion atop its division. “That’s not a factor in what we’re doing. We have to keep working the play better.

“We’ve got to get ready to play against tough challenges and come through better more consistently. We looked, really, typically up and down (against the Buccaneers). That was a terrible outing for us in that regard.

“It’s a very good opportunity for us to respect what’s going on. The situation is whether you’re playing home or on the road and it doesn’t matter about the opponent. We go out there and turn the ball over three times and don’t convert on third downs (1 for 11), you’re going to get yourself in deep water.”

There are some life preservers on the way.

Beyond the return of Britt and starting cornerback DeShawn Shead (hamstring), Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett is planning on playing Sunday night for the first time in six games. That’s been important against Carolina’s Cam Newton. Bennett and fellow end Cliff Avril (10 sacks in 11 games this season) have generally succeeded keeping Newton inside them and not extending plays for big runs or passes in their previous meetings.

Newton is 1-3 in the regular season (2-4 overall) against Seattle. His regular-season passer rating of 60.0 against the Seahawks is his lowest among all opponents he’s faced more than once.

As always with these Seahawks, it’s about themselves more than their foe. Even this weekend’s, one that ended their campaign last season, is the only NFC team besides Seattle to make the Super Bowl since the 2012 season and is desperate for its playoff life.

“We’re really positive about what we can do,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said of the wake of the loss at Tampa Bay. “We’ve obviously shown it in tons of different circumstances this year. We’ve battled, we’ve battled, we’ve battled.”

Extra point

The Seahawks on Tuesday released rookie RB and seventh-round draft choice Zac Brooks and RB Malcolm Johnson from the practice squad. They signed former Washington Huskies WR Kevin Smith to the practice squad. Smith played in seven games for Seattle last season, with one start. The team waived him as injured on Aug. 30 near the end of the preseason.

SEAHAWKS’ NEXT OPPONENT

CAROLINA PANTHERS (4-7)

5:30 p.m. Sunday, CenturyLink Field, Seattle

Against the Seahawks: This is the sixth meeting in four-plus years, including two playoff games. The Panthers took a stunning, 31-0 lead in the first half in January in the divisional playoffs in Charlotte and ended Seattle’s season with a 31-24 win. That was on Carolina’s way to Super Bowl 50. The Panthers won in Seattle last October with a late touchdown while confusing the Seahawks’ secondary on the winning pass. Before that, Carolina had lost the previous five meetings back through 2010. The Panthers trail the all-time regular-season series 5-3.

Line: Seahawks by 6 1/2

What to know: Is this the same team that went to the last Super Bowl? Nope. Cam Newton won last season’s NFL most valuable player award. This season he’s on pace for career lows in passer rating and completion percentage. … Newton was 3 for 12 for 18 yards passing in the first half as Oakland opened at 24-7 lead. … A huge reason Newton has struggled passing: his offensive line, to use the word of his coach Ron Rivera, is a “catastrophe.” Newton has been sacked 27 times in 10 games; he was sacked 33 times all last season. You think the Seahawks’ O-line has problems? The Panthers have put both starting center Ryan Kalil and his backup, Gino Gradkowski, on injured reserve. They are starting a practice-squad guy at center, Tyler Larsen. Carolina ended last weekend’s loss at Oakland with only one starting blocker from the beginning of this season still healthy enough to be playing in the spot he’s supposed to be: left guard Andrew Norwell. … Timberline High School graduate Jonathan Stewart, born on Fort Lewis, is still excelling in his ninth season. His seven rushing touchdowns are sixth-most in the NFL, and he leads Carolina with 461 yards rushing. … Tight end Greg Olsen remains Newton’s favorite target. He leads the team with 790 yards receiving on 58 catches. … Carolina ranks 14th in the NFL in total offense, 13th in rushing and 19th in passing. Its 25.1 points per game is 10th-best in the league. … Foes move the ball and score on Carolina through the air. The Panthers’ defense is first in the league in yards allowed per rush – and 29th in passing yards allowed. … Former Washington Huskies star Shaq Thompson is playing less this season. The Charlotte Observer reported he is averaging half the snaps on defense as fellow linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and last weekend in Oakland Thompson wasn’t in for even 25 percent of the defensive snaps. … Kuechly remains out indefinitely because of a concussion. … If Carolina doesn’t sack the QB – it is sixth in sacks – teams have burned the Panthers in coverage. The Panthers’ decision in the spring to rescind the franchise tag on All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman has crushed their secondary. … The most-telling stat for why Carolina’s fans have been talking this week more about draft order than playoff chances: Last season the Panthers led the NFL with a turnover margin of plus-20 while going 15-1 in the regular season. This season they are 23rd at minus-5.

Quotable: We’ve got five games left to go. As I said, there’s definitely, most certainly no room for error. Everything’s still possible. We’ll see what happens.” – Panthers coach Ron Rivera to Carolina’s media about his team’s playoff possibilities. Carolina is three games out of the NFC South lead with five games remaining.

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