For the first time in three years, the Seattle Seahawks will be watching the NFC Championship from their couches. Despite a furious comeback attempt in the Divisional round, the Seahawks dropped a 31-24 contest Sunday to the NFC's top-seeded Carolina Panthers.
For some teams, this could be where it all starts to slip away, where the shot at winning another Super Bowl will come around again like Halley's Comet. The Buffalo Bills made four straight Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s. Since then, they've won one playoff game and haven't sniffed the postseason in 16 years.
For others, this is what constitutes a "down" year, when the team goes 10-6 and earns a No. 6 seed in the playoffs. The New England Patriots won their first ever Super Bowl in 2001. They've made five other trips and added three more titles since then.
According to the Seahawks, there's no question which category they belong to.
"We're excited about coming back next year," quarterback Russell Wilson said after the loss to the Panthers. "Unfortunately we didn't get to win today, but the resilience we showed all year -- we've got a lot of winners in that room -- hopefully that will continue.
"I'm extremely optimistic about what's to come."
It's easy to see why they'd be confident about the future, too. The Seahawks have been one of the best teams in the league for the past four seasons. They came onto the scene strong in 2012 when they finished 11-5, their first winning record in five years. Seattle has totaled double-digit wins in each of the following seasons.
Two years ago, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl and last year, they came up a yard short of clinching back-to-back titles. A third trip in as many seasons isn't in the cards, but the championship window doesn't appear to be closing on them anytime soon.
The Seahawks never say die
Heading into the offseason, the Seahawks aren't letting their loss to the Panthers define them. Instead, it's the second half -- when they scored 24 unanswered points -- that tells their story. Even staring down a 31-0 deficit at halftime, the Seahawks thought they could still leave Carolina with a win.
"There wasn’t a guy in the locker room who didn’t think we were going to win the football game," head coach Pete Carroll said. "There wasn’t a word in that direction for a moment. The demonstration of what happened in the second half proves it. These guys totally believed they could do whatever they’ve got to do, they believe in one another, they love each other, and they care about it so much they do stuff like that and show you who they are and what they’re all about."
The Seahawks stormed back to make it a one-score game against Carolina, though they ran out of time to complete what would have been a miraculous comeback. In a way, it was a microcosm of Seattle's season.
In 2014, the Seahawks lost four games during the regular season. It took them just six weeks to match that total in 2015. They dropped four of their first six games, but the Seahawks rallied and pulled it all together. After winning six of their final seven games, they entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league.
In the Wild Card round, the Seahawks battled the Minnesota Vikings in incredibly frigid conditions. The Vikings held the lead most of the afternoon until the Seahawks engineered a game-winning fourth quarter. Though they could be considered lucky after Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed a chip-shot field goal at the end, the 10-9 win wouldn't have been possible if the Seahawks hadn't taken control of the final quarter.
For a team that is still young, the Seahawks showed this postseason how mature and impressive they can be in crunch time -- in both victory and defeat.
The core of the team isn't going anywhere
The future of the Seahawks starts with Wilson, the franchise quarterback the team is building around. In his short NFL career, the 27-year-old has already led them to a Super Bowl victory.
Wilson has shown improvement every single year of his career. He's coming off his best season yet, posting career bests in completions (329), completion percentage (68.1), passing yardage (4,024) and touchdowns (34). Despite playing behind a shaky offensive line and dealing with a banged-up backfield, Wilson turned it up a notch when a spot in the postseason was on the line.
In Seattle's last seven games of the regular season, he threw 24 touchdowns and just one interception. He also developed a strong rapport with Doug Baldwin, a fifth-year receiver who broke out this season with 1,069 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Wilson's spirited play made the entire offense function when it was needed most. Defensively, the Seahawks have some of the best players in the league, but with a few struggles on that side of the ball this season, Wilson picked up the slack and would be considered a surefire MVP if not for the remarkable season from Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
"Guys are just entering their prime, and we're going to be special for a long time," All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said, a sentiment later echoed by his head coach:
Carroll: "This is a young club and we have big time leadership."— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) January 18, 2016
Inside linebacker Bobby Wagner is the heart and soul of the defense. He's just 25 years old and has led a defensive unit that has allowed the fewest points in the league for four straight seasons. Wagner was second on the Seahawks with 114 tackles this year, also defending seven passes with two forced fumbles and two fumbles returned for touchdowns.
"I really like our team," Carroll said at his end-of-year press conference. "I like the balance of it. I like the youth of it. The attitude, the mentality, the toughness.
"We want to keep these guys together as much as we possibly can."
Not everyone will stick around, but most of them want to
The Seahawks potentially have a few key departures around the corner. Two stars, running back Marshawn Lynch and safety Kam Chancellor, are facing uncertain futures. Lynch may be at the end of his career if he decides to call it quits. Chancellor's salary will hit a career high in 2016 and then again in 2017. He has a base salary of $5.1 million for 2016, and a total cap hit of $6.1 million.
The possibility of losing Lynch sounds like a big deal, but the 29-year-old back played in just seven regular season games and the Seahawks managed without him. With Lynch on the sideline after undergoing abdomen surgery, undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls was given a chance to shine and he rewarded the Seahawks with 830 yards, four touchdowns and 5.6 yards per carry this season. Although he was placed on injured reserve after he broke his ankle in Week 14, Rawls put together a promising first season in the league.
Russell Okung, Brandon Mebane and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse are all on expiring contracts but the departure of all three could be justified by Seattle. Okung has a lengthy injury history and left Sunday's game against the Panthers with a shoulder injury. Mebane is 31 years old and his play has declined in recent years. Kearse has been serviceable for a team that has had struggles at the receiver position for years.
Kearse has already stated that he hopes to stay with the team, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times. Punter Jon Ryan and cornerback Jeremy Lane, who are pending free agents, also said that they'd like to keep playing for Seattle. Bruce Irvin, one of the better players set to be a free agent, said that he would be willing to take a discount to remain a Seahawk:
Locker clean out day today at the VMAC. A few quick tidbit. .... Bruce Irvin said he'd be open to taking a little less to stay in Seattle...— Bob Condotta (@bcondotta) January 18, 2016
But the list of players who are locked in next season is why the Seahawks' window is still open: Wilson, Sherman, Baldwin, Wagner, Earl Thomas, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and K.J. Wright are just entering or are already in the primes of their careers.
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The Seahawks are a mentally tough team and the players in the locker room have given every indication that Sunday's playoff loss won't fracture them. Carroll is recognized as one of the top head coaches in the league and his players have total faith in his ability to coach them to another winning season and potentially a Super Bowl.
On the field, if Wilson can be the player who continues to put the team on his back and if Sherman, Thomas and Wagner can continue to hold together one of the best defenses in the league, there will be nothing stopping them from another playoff push next season.
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