SEATTLE (AP) By this point, they might as well consider Seattle and Carolina a divisional game.
For the seventh time in five years, the Panthers and Seahawks will meet on Sunday night each with a different sense of urgency heading into the final month of the regular season.
Seattle (7-3-1) reverted to its inconsistent form of earlier this season in a loss last week to Tampa Bay that now leaves the Seahawks, while still in complete control of the NFC West, with no room for error in trying to hold off others in the NFC for the No. 2 seed and a coveted first-round bye in the playoffs.
The level of urgency is far greater for the defending NFC champion Panthers.
After last week's loss in Oakland , the Panthers (4-7) are three games behind in the NFC South race and 2+ games behind Washington for the final wild-card spot with five games to go.
There is time for Carolina, but it's running short to avoid joining the list of Super Bowl participants to miss the postseason the following year.
''We've lost five games by three points or less. We had opportunities to win football games down the stretch and didn't do it,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.
''Those are things that unfortunately we just didn't do. We did it last year and that's probably the hard pill to swallow.''
There's also the Super Bowl hangover, something that Rivera acknowledged researching what Seattle coach Pete Carroll did following the back-to-back trips by the Seahawks to the championship game to try and figure out ways to avoid a swoon by his team.
''I think it's got a little bit to do with it. The truth of the matter is if you win the first game, things can be different. Unfortunately we didn't, so we have to battle uphill,'' Rivera said.
Unlike the Panthers, thus far at least, Seattle was able to overcome early troubles following both of its Super Bowl trips to find a way back to the postseason.
''I think you have to be prepared for it way before you ever get to it,'' Carroll said.
''If it's the first time you ever talk about it, I think you might not be able to have grounded thoughts and approach to deal with it. It's an enormous impact, win or lose.''
Thanks to the underperformance by the rest of the division, Seattle is in fine shape to make a fifth straight playoff appearance under Carroll, with a three-game lead in the NFC West over Arizona.
The loss last week to Tampa Bay seemed destined from the outset, with the Seahawks down four starters on defense including safety Earl Thomas, and without starting center Justin Britt the anchor to what's been a shaky offensive line all season.
But managing just five points - and only a field goal by the offense - was a startling reversal back to Seattle's offensive problems early in the season when the Seahawks began the season with 12 points in a win over Miami and three points in a loss to Los Angeles.
''We were just a little bit off. Last week was last week. You can always get better,'' Seattle QB Russell Wilson said.
Here's what else to watch as the past three NFC representatives in the Super Bowl meet:
RUNNING DOWNHILL: Stopping the Panthers run game means more than just worrying about the running back.
''I think they're the only team in the league that runs a quarterback power,'' Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner said.
While many of the Panthers offensive statistics are down from a year ago, they still remain one of the most diverse running attacks in the league with Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Newton.
And Seattle has seemed more susceptible to the run this season, giving up 100.8 yards per game on the ground and seeing teams stick with the run more than the past. Opponents are averaging 28.4 run attempts per game against Seattle. Last season, it was 22.6.
LINES OF CHANGE: Both the offensive lines for Seattle and Carolina are in major flux.
The Seahawks are hoping to get Britt back from an ankle injury that sidelined him last week. With Britt out, Seattle struggled with protection and the Bucs sacked Wilson six times. The Seahawks are also making a change at right tackle with Bradley Sowell stepping in to replace Garry Gilliam.
Those are minor changes compared to what the Panthers are going through . Centers Ryan Khalil and Gino Gradkowski were placed on injured reserve this week.
Tyler Larsen is expected to make his first start at center, but the changes also include Trai Turner expected to start at right tackle for the first time since high school and Chris Scott likely stepping in at guard.
PROTECT HOME: The Seahawks are the only unbeaten team at home in the NFL this season. But it's been four years - 2012- since Seattle finished the season 8-0 at home.
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