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Seahawks and Panthers rematch not so much payback as atonement

In this Dec. 13, 2015, file photo, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin is hit by Baltimore Ravens free safety Kendrick Lewis as Baldwin scores a touchdown during an NFL football game in Baltimore. The Seahawks face the Carolina Panthers in a playoff game Sunday; a key matchup will be Baldwin against Panthers cornerback Josh Norman.

Nick Wass/AP

They sat around in the aftermath of a fourth loss in six games, this vaunted group of Seattle Seahawks defensive backs trying to figure out how they could make such a costly mistake.

It was Week 6 and Carolina had just walked out of CenturyLink Field with an unlikely victory over the Seahawks thanks to two fourth-quarter touchdowns. It left the likes of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas trying to figure out how to make corrections before the season slipped away.

"It's more so our standard than anything else. That's what it comes down to. We've played a lot of football around here and there were no excuses for what happened then and there," Seattle defensive co-ordinator Kris Richard said. "We didn't play up to our standard. We know it and thank God we have another opportunity to go out there and do something."

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Seattle gets its chance to make up for the mistakes of that first meeting with the Panthers on Sunday when the teams meet in an NFC divisional playoff game. At the time in mid-October, that loss was a crushing blow, the second straight week the Seahawks had let a double-digit fourth-quarter lead slip away and another late collapse that threatened to define their season.

But the Seahawks corrected those early mistakes – problems that were on both sides of the ball – and have won nine of 11 games since. And, yes, there has been some luck involved in avoiding any more late collapses, most notably last week's frozen escape in Minnesota when Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal that would have ended Seattle's season.

"We've grown a lot since that and this is an opportunity to show how much we've grown since the last time we played them," linebacker Bobby Wagner said.

Seattle's bad string started in the opener at St. Louis during an overtime that featured a last-minute touchdown by the Rams, an overtime kickoff flub and a fourth-down fail that clinched the defeat. There was the Week 2 setback in Green Bay, being outscored 10-0 in the fourth quarter, and the 17-point meltdown in Cincinnati over the final 14 minutes that led to a 27-24 overtime loss to the Bengals in Week 5.

All those losses came on the road and in situations where Seattle's offensive inefficiency was at times as culpable as its defensive mistakes. But the capper came in Week 6 when Cam Newton closed the game with two successive 80-yard touchdown drives and a communications breakdown between Thomas and Sherman led to Greg Olsen's game-winning 26-yard touchdown with less than a minute remaining.

While Olsen celebrated, Thomas and Sherman looked at each other incredulously trying to figure out who made the mistake, leading to a group chat in the locker room after the loss.

"The chemistry wasn't there," Thomas said.

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So what changed?

Well, Seattle simply wasn't in as many close games in the latter half of the season, in part because both its offence and defence began to play better. The Seahawks posted double-digit wins in six of their final seven victories to close the regular season, with most of those games being well-decided by the fourth quarter.

The few times Seattle was in a tight game, there was a unified effort to close things out. Against Pittsburgh in Week 12, the Steelers had first-and-goal with less than four minutes remaining and trailing by five, but had to settle for a field goal. On the ensuing possession, Russell Wilson hit Doug Baldwin for an 80-yard touchdown to put the game away.

Last week, while there was a significant amount of luck in Walsh missing the field goal, the Seahawks wouldn't have been in the lead if not for an 80-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter and Kam Chancellor's forced fumble that led to the winning field goal from Steven Hauschka.

"We've been in tons of games that have all kinds of circumstances, and so these are just more of the same," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "I think for this year's team, those are the games as we look back, that we draw from."

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