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Earl Thomas and the Seahawks won't let unhealed wounds stand in the way of a Super Bowl run

Old wounds are fueling a new question for Earl Thomas and his teammates.

He trudged off the field last February like the rest of the Seattle Seahawks, dazed over how the Super Bowl had ended with Russell Wilson's pick and smoldering over the New England Patriots championship celebration. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas would face more agonizing tests.

He had played in that game with a dislocated left shoulder that was actually a torn labrum. Soon afterward he had surgery.

"It took six months of recovery," Thomas recalled. "No preseason games. No practice before the first game. No game-like conditioning, no hitting. A challenge."

But when this season opened, Thomas was there. He is always there. He has not missed a game in his six-year Seahawks career. Including playoffs, that is 107 consecutive Seattle starts.

The 108th is at the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in the NFC Divisional playoffs. Thomas talks about being "connected to the process" and "enjoying the journey" in his career, in his life, but this season's process and journey to Carolina was full of disconnect and snares.

Safety Kam Chancellor missed the first two games in a contract holdout and Seattle lost them both. The Seahawks started the season 2-4. Injuries swelled. Offenses began attacking the Seattle defense differently and successfully with tight end-oriented tactics. The defense lacked cohesive communication. The lost chance to become repeat Super Bowl champions haunted them.

"There were issues internally," Thomas said. "A lot of guys were not over that Super Bowl loss. It's a team game and you have to have everybody's mind right. We were still thinking about the legacy, what could have been. It hurt. But you start to realize in a new season that you need everybody. Everybody's intensity had to be raised and then bring that to the group."

The Seattle season unfolded with two losses, two victories, two losses, two victories and then another loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Thomas said in video study after that Arizona loss that the defense could see that it was not playing with its usual fire. They had to become more swarming. They did. They won six consecutive games afterward and finished the regular season by winning seven of eight. The Seattle defense matched the 1953-1957 Cleveland Browns as NFL teams that led the league in scoring defense for four consecutive seasons. Then came the "Miracle at Minnesota" last weekend in the playoffs, a game played in frigid weather against the Minnesota Vikings that the Seahawks survived.

There is a thread of leadership and example through it all that revolves around Thomas.

He was one of Seattle head coach Pete Carroll's first draft picks when Carroll became coach in 2010. He talks like Carroll, thinks like Carroll. Thomas is a natural leader, the kind the Cincinnati Bengals missed in their blowup in that playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. I have no doubt things would have never gone down the way they did for the Bengals if they all season had Thomas in their huddle.

He is 26 and matched his career high in interceptions this season with five. His game is all about running, hitting and closing to the football.

But it is also about integrity, pride.

"I think the biggest difference in this season is that I know what I am capable of," Thomas said. "I've never challenged myself as much as I am now. I'm coming off a torn labrum. Some people have told me I should play it safe. They tell me not to take chances. I'm always going to bring my best to the team. I just go for it. I am who I say I am."

Thomas employs a scholarly approach to football.

Listen to his analysis of this game's starting quarterbacks.

On Carolina's Cam Newton: "I see that Cam is more poised, there is a calmness. It's what playing football is all about. There is speed in your mind but the game itself becomes slow. Muscle memory takes over. When the game seems slow for you, you just use your God-given ability. Cam is trusting himself."

On Wilson: "When I watch Russell I can tell he uses his imagination out there. Our practice tempo cannot be exactly as fast as the games. But Russell in practices actually over-exaggerates everything. That makes him prepared for the game. When they come, he's ready. Of course, with Russell, you can tell - people who love the game, who want to be great, the most special players have that. And that's Russell Wilson. He has greatness all around him; we have great players. Our coaches have greatness, too."

That's Thomas, cognizant and convicted of who he is and who and what surrounds him.

This march to Carolina, to another Super Bowl, could correct plenty for Thomas and all of the Seahawks. There is a familiar feeling among them.

"Every game is a championship game," Thomas said. "Every game should get that kind of effort. That is Pete's philosophy. That's mine. This is a great game to get the chance to show who we are."