CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They seemed by equal measures angry and disappointed.
But most of the Seattle Seahawks also came away from their 31-24 playoff loss to Carolina somewhat incredulous.
What do you mean we’re done? We’re not going to the Super Bowl? Not even the NFC title game? What do we do now?
It’s been three years since the Seahawks lost a playoff game before the Super Bowl.
At times during that stretch, they’ve had to overcome deficits and inconsistencies and their own mistakes, but they’ve done it.
Until that magic carpet ran out of gas Sunday. Or maybe it ran out of time.
“As ignorant as this sounds, I’ve never not been to the Super Bowl,” said tight end Luke Willson about the end of his third season. “I’ve had a short career, but I don’t know what this week is going to be like, I don’t want to come off being arrogant, but …”
His sentence trailed off as a silent question probing unknown possibilities.
The Seahawks have been competitively buoyant for most of that time, getting pushed down at times only to pop back to the top. Time and again. They’ve done it so often that none felt overwhelmed by the 31-0 halftime deficit against the Panthers.
They won the second half 24-0, throwing a scare into Carolina, but it left them fighting for an onside kick in the last minute. The Panthers recovered, claimed the win and will take on Arizona next week in a duel to replace the Seahawks as NFC champions.
Early this season, defensive end Michael Bennett claimed that falling anywhere short of the Super Bowl would be a waste of time for this team.
When receiver Doug Baldwin was asked about that kind of thinking, he asked if the question was rhetorical, perhaps too obvious to bother with.
“What do you think we play the game for?” Baldwin asked, suddenly rhetorical himself. “Every year, 32 teams set out to win the Super Bowl. That’s the only goal, yeah. If you’re not in it to win the Super Bowl, then what are you playing for?”
Head coach Pete Carroll took a big-picture view, citing this game as a microcosm of the entire strange season for the Hawks, starting 2-4 and being considered by most to be “dead and gone.”
One plague from the early part of the season resurfaced in the first half: The inability to protect quarterback Russell Wilson. With Wilson under pressure or getting sacked, the offense did nothing in the first half.
After some adjustments were made, Wilson completed 21 of 31 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
Not quite enough.
“They did a couple different things they hadn’t shown, but we just started too slow, that’s what it came down to,” guard J.R. Sweezy said. “You can’t start games like this and get down 31-0. This is the NFL. It’s a credit to us that we came back, but that’s too much.”
The streak of back-to-back Super Bowls created among the Seahawks the expectation of annual contention for the Lombardi Trophy.
With across-the-board excellence in the final eight regular-season games, the Seahawks seemed worthy of a third Super Bowl. They were considered the wild card team that “nobody wants to face.”
But Carolina was 15-1, had defeated them earlier in the season and by rights deserves to be considered the best in the league. There’s no shame in losing to the Panthers.
Except that’s not enough.
“We had the chance to be special again and we didn’t get it done,” cornerback Richard Sherman said.
The Arizona Cardinals already took the NFC West division title away from the Seahawks, and either they or the Panthers will take over the conference title.
The Seahawks are left to carry around that reality for a while, and package that into a tidy bundle of competitive fuel.
Sherman has some words about those who might consider the Seahawks’ trajectory as having flattened out, having been asked if the team is still on the rise.
“One hundred percent,” Sherman said. “Because we’re so young. … People have been astounded by what we’ve been able to do in our young career. We’re far from done. Guys are just entering their prime; we’re going to be special for a long time.”
Special? Sure. There’s tons of talent still under contract.
But super special? They’re going to have to prove that again when they reconvene next season.