Three years, three defensive-dominated games, three losses by a total of 13 points.
This isn’t the kind of three-peat the Carolina Panthers had in mind.
Seattle quarterback and former N.C. State star Russell Wilson tossed a 23-yard touchdown to Luke Willson with 47 seconds left Sunday, lifting the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks to a 13-9 win at Bank of America Stadium.
It was Seattle’s third win in as many years against the Panthers (3-4-1), all decided by five points or fewer. Wilson delivered the winning touchdown pass in all three games.
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“I’m telling you, it’s just the Achilles’ heel man. They keep nagging us,” Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said. “They end up making one more play than us, every single time. We just have to – every time we play those guys – make one more play than them because obviously it’s a defensive game.”
The Seahawks (4-3) snapped a two-game losing streak by driving 80 yards in nine plays before the Wilson-to-Willson connection. The tight end got behind rookie safety Tre Boston, who was playing in place of an injured Thomas DeCoud.
Norman said Seattle ran four vertical routes on the play, and Willson held on despite a big hit by strong safety Roman Harper at the goal line.
DeCoud pulled his hamstring during the second half and watched the Seahawks’ winning drive from the sideline. He spent the past six years in Atlanta but had seen enough tape of the Panthers’ 2013 loss to Seattle to know how similarly it played out.
“It was kind of like déjà vu to see it unravel in the same way,” DeCoud said. “But we don’t have any time to cry over spilled milk because we play again in a little over (96) hours.”
The Panthers will face New Orleans on Thursday night in a matchup of the top teams in the NFC South, a division in which no team has a winning record.
After Wilson’s touchdown pass, the Panthers got the ball at their 23 with 42 seconds left. But Cam Newton was sacked twice and bounced a throw at the feet of running back Jonathan Stewart on a screen play on fourth-and-25.
Newton had another tough day against the Seahawks, completing 12 of 22 passes for 171 yards with no touchdowns and a 61.0 passer rating. Newton lost two turnovers. He was sacked three times, all during the fourth quarter.
In three games against Seattle, Newton has completed 54 percent of his passes for an average of 146 yards. His two lowest-yardage passing games were in the 2012 and 2013 Seahawks losses.
“It doesn’t matter the team. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Newton said. “The frustrating part is being that close for that long and just allowing it to slip through your hands at the end.”
It was the beginning that ended up costing the Panthers.
The Panthers drove inside the Seattle 15 on their first three possessions but came away with only two Graham Gano field goals.
The third drive ended when Newton fumbled a zone-read exchange to Stewart at the Seahawks’ 14, and defensive end Cliff Avril recovered at the 16.
“When you get inside the 5, you scratch, claw, spit, grit – find a way. We know that. It just has to settle in. We didn’t do a good job with that,” Newton said. “There’s nobody to point the finger at more so than the offense executing.”
Leading 6-3 at halftime, the Panthers started the second half near midfield after a 49-yard kickoff return by Brenton Bersin.
On third-and-7 from the Seattle 34, Newton rolled to his left to avoid a sack and flung the ball backhanded toward tight end Greg Olsen. But Marcus Burley intercepted it and ran it back into Panthers’ territory.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he thought Newton was “pressing” to make plays.
“Well, sometimes with a team like this you have to press. You have to be able to take chances,” Newton said. “When you make plays, you’re labeled a genius. When you don’t, and a lot of times we didn’t, it looks bad. It looks really bad.”
It wasn’t just Newton who looked bad in the red zone.
On the Panthers’ second possession, rookie Kelvin Benjamin dropped a pass in the end zone on second-and-goal from the 3. After a Seattle penalty moved the ball to the 1, Stewart was dropped for a 7-yard loss when the right side of the line was pushed backward.
The Panthers’ defense played well until the final drive, when Wilson completed four of four passes – to four receivers – for 53 yards. He also ran twice for 21 yards, including a 14-yard scramble after the Seahawks were penalized 5 yards for a false start.
“When I went into the huddle, I kind of laughed and smiled. I told them, ‘Hey man, we’ve here for two years in a row. Just like this. Let’s go do it,’ ” said Wilson, who was 20-for-32 passing for 199 yards and one touchdown, with one interception.
Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had that been-here-before feeling, as well.
“When you look back at the last few games, it’s kind of been around the same score. That’s when you know it’s a good matchup. It’s two good teams playing against each other, and it’s fun playing against these guys,” he said.
“But at the end of the day you want to win, and at the end of the game you’ve got to step up and make some plays.”