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Panthers veterans sensed something familiar Wednesday

Wednesday practice

CHARLOTTE — Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks keeps talking about a "playoff mentality" and keeps referring to previous playoff teams.

And while he and his players had a number of ways of describing what that mentality looked like, the guys who lived it said it was also something that they could feel when they went inside the Atrium Health Dome to get out of the rain and practice Wednesday.

"It was different. A few guys picked up on it very quickly," veteran long snapper JJ Jansen said. "I always think there's great value for our team to go inside the bubble. There's a tremendous energy in those kinds of tighter quarters. We're doing it for football reasons, the fields, want to have a good crisp practice.

"But the music, the energy, we know how big of a game this is, how tough of an environment this is, and what you saw today was guys preparing for that challenge. Not afraid of it, not worried about it, but there's a lot of things you have to do to get ready.

"I felt a group of guys who were eager to go to Seattle today and go win. Which is a different feeling than we've had in a while."

Saying those words out loud still sounds strange because the Panthers are 4-8 at the moment and haven't won a road game all year. But as weird as it appears, there's a very tangible confidence around a team that you might not expect it from.

Safety Jeremy Chinn isn't a big talker in any circumstance, but he described in a few words what it felt like at practice, in a situation with so much on the line.

"It was just coming in on a Wednesday after a bye week and practicing our ass off, communicating, being loud, being intentional," Chinn said. "I feel like everybody in here knows. We don't know how things are going to go, but we know how important this game on Sunday is.

"I definitely felt like the communication was really on point today. That was good, for sure. Just an elite level of focus and communication."

While few things about this year have reached the level of elite, the Panthers still have a chance, and as long as they do, Wilks is going to continue preaching about the past. Not just about the 7-8-1 NFC South champions of 2014, but of the 2015 team, which was finally able to get past the Seahawks early in the Super Bowl run.

The Panthers had lost five straight games against the Seahawks prior to that one, and had never won a game in Seattle. And when they arrived, they didn't feel particularly welcome.

"I remember it was a hell of a game," linebacker Shaq Thompson said. "The fire alarm got pulled at 2 a.m., and it was on after that."

Other than his rude awakening during his rookie season, his memory of that game was spot-on.

The Panthers fell behind 20-7 that day before rallying to win on Greg Olsen's last-minute touchdown, establishing themselves a bit in the NFC (when no one knew they'd go 15-1 that season). They also dropped the Seahawks — who had won two NFC titles and a Super Bowl the previous two years — to 2-4 that day.

"We were 4-0, and they were 2-3 at the time, and so you felt like you ended them, and we catapulted," Jansen recalled. "It was really about, like, (coach) Ron Rivera would always tell us to be relevant, and everybody would kind of snicker. But that was the first time where it's like, 'We are in it. We're 5-0; we beat the two-time defending NFC champs.' That was big because of who that team was, and winning it catapulted you.

"This year, I think it's a little bit of, this is a really good team, and now we have an opportunity to play for something. These next five weeks are so important. The way this team looks at it, we've got five playoff games, and we've got to win as many of them as we can, one at a time."

For Jansen, recognizing during practice that things were different was a bit of a sign. It's easy to snicker at the Panthers and their playoff talk now, as it was when Rivera was trying to convince a team that won a division with a losing record the previous year that they were "relevant."

But the guys who were there in 2015, and the ones who were in that practice bubble Wednesday, felt something.

"It's about playing fast, not making dumb decisions, playing hard, playing fast, playing physical, everybody just doing their job creating turnovers and winning the game," Thompson said simply of this week's mission. "I just sensed a lot of focus today. We know we're still in it, and we know these last five games are going to count for us if we want to make the playoffs."

Wilks isn't shying away from the talk, which is why he's shown his team the clips of that 2015 game to remind his current team of what's still possible.

"You know, our approach has always been the next game, and you want to play your best football in December," Wilks said. "That's always been the case. And this is the opportunity for us to go against what many consider to be a playoff team, which I feel they are, as well on the road in hostile environment and see exactly how we pair up.

"That's the reason why we talked somewhat about a playoff mentality, particularly going into a playoff environment. And you know, it's all about us. We're not worrying about the outside noise in what happens in other games. Because to be honest, we got to make sure that we win. And as long as we're doing that, taking it one day at a time and trying to win the day. We'll see where we are in the end.""

That's the goal, anyway. And it begins Sunday.

Carolina has played Seattle nine times since 2013. The Seahawks lead the all-time series 10-4.