CHARLOTTE – Sunday's game between the Panthers and Seahawks at Bank of America Stadium played out just as it had the past two seasons. It was another defensive battle that came down to the wire.
"That's been the nature of the games we've played against them three years in a row," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It's been very similar in terms of the score, very similar in the physicality of the game."
And it was a similar outcome, with the Seahawks claiming a 13-9 comeback victory.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson engineered a nine-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with the game-winning 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Luke Willson with 47 seconds left.
"The frustrating part is being that close for that long and just allowing it to slip through your hands at the end," quarterback Cam Newton said.
On the game-winning drive, Wilson completed all four of his pass attempts for 53 yards and ran for 21 yards to produce the game's only touchdown.
"The one thing that got us in the end was the quarterback," Rivera said. "He ran a couple of times, and that created some tough problems for us. He scrambled and made plays."
This matchup has been played in Charlotte three consecutive years. Each time, neither team scored 20 points. And each time, Seattle has pulled out a late victory.
"They end up making one more play than us every single time," cornerback Josh Norman said.
The Panthers controlled the first half but had just a 6-3 lead to show for it.
Graham Gano converted a 31-yard field goal in the first quarter. He doubled the lead with a 26-yarder in the second quarter after wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had a pass go through his hands in the back of the end zone and running back Jonathan Stewart was stuffed for a 7-yard loss on third-and-goal from the 1.
"We just have to block," Rivera said. "We had a chance to score a touchdown by throwing the ball and we have to catch it. That's as basic as it gets."
Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka countered with a 58-yard field goal to cut the lead in half.
The Panthers reached the red zone again on the ensuing possession, but Newton fumbled a zone-read exchange with Stewart at the Seattle 14-yard line and defensive end Cliff Avril recovered for Seattle.
"It was just a miscommunication," Newton said. "We have to be better about that."
Seattle then drove to the Carolina 7-yard line, but on third-and-goal Wilson's pass for running back Marshawn Lynch deflected into the air and was intercepted by Norman in the end zone with 25 seconds left before halftime.
Newton threw an interception of his own early in the third quarter. He tried to flip a pass to tight end Greg Olsen as he was falling down, but it was picked off easily by cornerback Marcus Burley at the Seahawks' 36-yard line.
Seattle turned that miscue into a 29-yard Hauschka field goal to tie the game, but a touchdown was there for taking. A fake handoff and sprint out by Wilson fooled the Carolina defense, leaving tight end Cooper Helfet wide open. But Wilson underthrew the pass, and it fell incomplete.
Seattle missed another opportunity late in the third quarter on third-and-1 from the Panthers' 21-yard line, when Wilson fumbled the snap and defensive end Mario Addison recovered the loose ball for Carolina.
The Panthers produced their biggest play when backed up to their own 7-yard line on third-and-11 midway through the fourth quarter. Two plays after narrowly avoiding a safety, Newton heaved a pass down the middle of the field to Benjamin, who outleaped two defenders for a 51-yard catch.
The drive stalled when defensive tackle Bradon Mebane sacked Newton for a 9-yard loss on second-and-nine, forcing Carolina to play it safe and regain the lead with a 46-yard Gano field goal with 4:37 left in the game.
"We just have to find a way to get into the end zone," left tackle Byron Bell said. "We left too many points out there."
There proved to be far too much time left for Wilson and the Seahawks, who reached the end zone for the game-winning score without ever facing a third down.
"It came down to us defensively," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "No matter how well we played early in the game, when the game was on the line we didn't execute and we didn't get that win for our team."