SEATTLE — For all the drama that has surrounded the Carolina Panthers this season, a resiliency among the group has developed and left them unexpectedly in the middle of a playoff race with four games to go.
The race to the NFC South title might end up going through Charlotte.
Sam Darnold threw one touchdown pass, Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear both had rushing TDs, and the Panthers stayed in the thick of the muddled division race with a 30-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
“With everything that we’ve gone through with coaching changes, getting rid of players … all those different things and to see how those guys respond and came out and played today, it is pretty thrilling and emotional,” interim Panthers coach Steve Wilks said.
Darnold and Carolina built leads of 17-0 and 20-7 to take advantage of a sloppy, unenthusiastic first half performance by the Seahawks. In the second half, the Panthers simply ran through Seattle’s defense and delivered a blow to the Seahawks’ (7-6) hopes of winning the NFC West.
Carolina (5-8) won for the third time in four games and won away from Charlotte for the first time since Week 10 of last season. Carolina pulled even with Atlanta and is within one game of division-leading Tampa Bay in the NFC South standings after the Buccaneers’ loss in San Francisco.
“I told them boys last night, talked to the team and said these are the games, if you want to be a playoff team, these are the games you’ve got to win in these environments,” Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “And these guys showed up.”
Hubbard, Blackshear and D’Onta Foreman were a three-headed trio that Seattle couldn’t stop on the ground. Carolina rushed for 223 yards, with 180 coming from those three backs. Foreman and Hubbard both had 74 yards rushing.
Hubbard’s 2-yard TD run early in the second quarter gave Carolina a 17-0 lead and Blackshear’s 8-yard TD run with 6:57 remaining pushed the lead to 27-17. Blackshear’s TD capped a drive where Carolina ran on eight of the 10 plays and gained 68 of its 74 yards on the ground.
Darnold was 14 of 24 for 120 yards passing but didn’t need to do anything special through the air with the success on the ground.
“I just felt like we had momentum,” Hubbard said. “(Offensive) line was dominating. They were tired. I mean, you could see it. The line was just wearing on them. Everybody was just wearing on them. We were pounding them. That’s what we pride ourselves on.”
Seattle has allowed two of its last three opponents to top 200 yards rushing and five straight opponents have rushed for at least 122 yards.
“We gotta fix this … because you’ve seen what happened. And it’s been the same thing the past two weeks, and teams see it and they’re gonna attack it,” Seattle safety Ryan Neal said.
Carolina also took advantage of a shaky performance from Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith. Seattle struggled with the pressures brought by the Panthers defense, and Smith made mistakes he has avoided most of the season.
Smith’s first pass on Seattle’s first offensive play was intercepted by Jaycee Horn. In the second quarter, Smith appeared to think he had a free play with the Panthers jumping offsides, but no flag was thrown and his risky pass was picked by C.J. Henderson.
Henderson’s interception was turned into Eddy Pineiro’s second field goal of the half and a 20-7 Panthers lead.
Smith finished 21 of 36 for 264 yards and was sacked three times.
Tyler Lockett caught a touchdown pass for a sixth straight game and DK Metcalf also had a 12-yard TD catch, both in the second quarter. Marquise Goodwin caught a 24-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left, but Carolina recovered the ensuing onside kick.
While Carolina’s run game couldn’t be stopped, Seattle had no semblance of a running attack with starter Kenneth Walker III and backup DeeJay Dallas out due to ankle injuries suffered last week. The Seahawks had 46 yards rushing, their fourth straight game under 100 yards.
“They were tougher than us. They played harder, they played to win and they got it done,” Smith said.
Carolina now controls its destiny in the division. The Panthers beat the Bucs earlier this season and have one game remaining against Tampa Bay. If Carolina wins its last four games, it wins the division.
The Panthers host Pittsburgh next Sunday.