Stakes aren’t as high as four years ago for Seahawks vs. Panthers

This week marks a return to the scene of the prime.

The Carolina Panthers will play in Seattle for the first time since the NFC Championship Game in January 2006, which turned out to be the Seahawks’ final victory in their most successful season.

“It’s a memory,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “Not a pleasant one.”

For Seattle, that 34-14 victory was as good as it got, but nearly five years is more than enough time for everyone’s ears to stop ringing. In fact, there isn’t anything left but echoes. The Panthers have six players on their roster who suited up for that conference championship game; the Seahawks have seven. Maybe it’s fitting the best player on the field that day — tackle Walter Jones — will have his retired No. 71 unveiled just before halftime Sunday.

That era is over. The Seahawks have changed coaches twice since then. The Panthers are 1-10, already assured of their worst record since Fox became coach in 2002. They are trying to establish a new quarterback and find a little dignity this season.

Five years ago, these two teams were at the top of the NFC’s food chain. Now, they are at the bottom of the NFL’s offensive pecking order. The Panthers have the league’s worst passing offense andwill start rookie Jimmy Clausen at a stadium not known for its hospitality to first-year signal-callers.

Things have started bad for Carolina, which has scored a league-low 22 points in the first quarter, and they haven’t gotten all that much better for an offense hindered by a lack of experience.

“Just youth,” Fox said. “We have a lot of youth in some critical positions.”

That starts with Clausen at quarterback and a pair of rookie wide receivers, Brandon LaFell and David Gettis.

Jake Delhomme is gone. He just didn’t take all the interceptions and turnovers with him. Carolina has committed 29 this season, more than all but one other team in the league.

Matt Moore began Carolina’s season as the starter until he was replaced by Clausen, who was subsequently replaced by Moore. Moore then got hurt, and so it was back to Clausen. Clausen missed one game because of a concussion, so the Panthers started Brian St. Pierre, who had been with the team less than a week.

Steve Smith may still be one of the league’s elite receivers; you’d just never know it given Carolina’s passing game. He has caught more than five passes in only one game this season and still doesn’t have a 100-yard game in 2010. The Panthers’ top receiver last week was Mike Goodson. He’s a running back, which tells you how far Carolina is looking downfield.

While the Panthers’ season is already in the ditch, the Seahawks are trying to stop a skid in which they’ve lost four of five games. They are now under .500 for the first time under coach Pete Carroll, the team hip deep in a wrestling match to see who emerges from the cesspool that is the NFC West.

Carroll conceded Wednesday that, yes, it’s surprising that his 5-6 team would be tied for first place in any division.

“Everybody has to say that you’re surprised at that,” he said. “Seeing how even it is, and how close it is.”

But as bad as the NFC West has been at times this season, it’s hard to imagine Seattle being in position to win it if it doesn’t beat the 1-10 Panthers at home.

Carroll will tell his team to ignore the record, emphasizing the threat that the Panthers’ rushing offense poses, and more than anything get his team to make this next game the first step in its closing kick as Seattle plays three of its final five games at home.

“There’s only one game in the universe for us, and this is it,” Carroll said.

That’s true even if the stakes aren’t quite as high as the last time these two teams played in Seattle.