ATLANTA — Despair was thick in the Seahawks locker room, profound as any I’ve seen. Thirty minutes after the game, many players were in full uniform with towels over heads, staring into the floor as if solace might erupt from the concrete.
Richard Sherman, the verbose cornerback who is fated to die in mid-sentence, waved off reporters. Safety Earl Thomas shook his head no to questions. A third Seahawk All Pro selection, center Max Unger, almost got away before I stepped between him and the exit.
“I don’t even want to think about this,” he said. “It’s a tough one to get over. It’s going to take a long time.”
Finally, tight end Zach Miller, buoyed by the individual game of his career (eight catches, 142 yards, one glorious touchdown), had the presence of mind to drill down past the anguish to the core of the ache.
“We wanted to win it,” he said, “for him.”
That would be Russell Wilson, the stumpy kid who is relentless as Puget Sound rain, only lots more fun. Wilson should have been celebrated as having led one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history, but instead will be a footnote — a bold-faced italic footnote, but a footnote — in the chronicle of the 2012 season as the Atlanta Falcons, who won 30-28, move on the the NFC championship game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
Screaming back from a 20-0 halftime deficit for a 28-27 lead with 34 seconds left, Wilson left ashen the red-clad hordes in the Georgia Dome. But moments later, it was the Seahawks and a vocal knot of fans who were flabbergasted when the Seahawks foolishly played a soft zone defense that allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan two long completions that set up a game-winning, 49-yard field goal from Matt Bryant with eight seconds remaining.
The whipsaw brought a devastating end to a brilliant season that was within reach of the Super Bowl. Wilson had a splendid second half, finishing with a club-playoff-record 385 yards, two passing TDs and one on the ground. Yet after the win, he was almost as remarkable with his response to defeat.
Instead of moping, Wilson simply refused to give in, demonstrating why the team has fallen for a rookie they all came to cherish.
“When the game was over, I was very disappointed, but when I got to the tunnel, walking off, I got so excited for the opportunity next year,” he said. What? The kid just had a metaphorical arrow shot through his heart, and he already pulled it out.
“I told (QB position coach Carl Smith) afterward, ‘I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get to the off-season and work and work and work . . . to get to the next season and play.”
That’s why he is the leader and the rest of his world follows, happily. Some people will not believe that’s how his mind works, but some people could not lead, in their first year on the job, drives of 80, 80, 62 and 61 yards in the final half on the road in an NFL playoff game against the conference’s top-seeded team.
Indefatigable. Resourceful. Visionary. Unflappable. The human adjective dictionary that is Pete Carroll cannot himself finish the description.
“There is no way I can describe (in 20 minutes) the amount of what he does,” he said. “He’s just an amazing kid. It is so unheard of for rookies to do stuff like that. But he ain’t a rookie. He is just good.”
The best of many moments came inside the final minute, third-and-five at the Atlanta 27-yard line, trailing 27-21 and Falcons fans coughing up lungs for a defensive stop. Wilson, out of the shotgun, looked deep for a moment and then was nearly sacked before pivoting away, Bugs Bunny style, as Seahawks fans have learned to expect. He checked down to Marshawn Lynch, waiting patiently along the sideline, who caught the short throw and turned it into first-and-goal at the Atlanta 3.
He scored on the next play, the crowd fell silent, and everyone in the Northwest who had quit at 20-0 snapped both axles of the bandwagon as they jumped back on.
It wasn’t enough. Thirty-one seconds remained after kickoff, and the Seahawks fell back into a deep zone instead of playing the coverage that held the Falcons in the second half to seven points and 107 yards to that point. If that was the idea of coordinator Gus Bradley, he may have just played himself out of the head coaching jobs for which he interviewed this weekend.
Ryan hit two long passes that set up Matt Bryant to hit the game-winner from 49 yards with eight seconds left. Time remained for the Seahawks to dial up a Hail Mary, but having answered against Green Bay, Mary rarely picks up a second time in a season.
But the game was not lost late; it was was lost in the first half when the Seahawks came away scoreless despite twice having first downs at the Atlanta 11-yard line. Particularly acute was the fourth-and-one handoff to fullback Michael Robinson. He was stopped for a yard loss and the ball went over to the Falcons. Three or six points there would have been a game-changer.
Wilson contended that wasn’t the turning point, but he inadvertently explained why it was a dubious play call.
“We’ve done that play a lot (fullback dive in short-yardage situations),” Wilson said. “They made a great play in the backfield to stop him.”
It’s easy to make a great play on defense when the offensive play is known. Wilson was right; the Seahawks called the play often — too often. The Falcons were ready for it.
Wilson, however, is not about second-guessing or lamentations. His eyes are always forward.
“There’s so many what-if questions, but that’s not how you play,” he said, almost insistent. “You have to move on to the next opportunity. That’s what we did all season. So many games came down to the last minutes, similar to today. We won a lot of crucial games. We could have done better things earlier (today), but you can’t deal in what-if’s.”
Well, he doesn’t have to, but coaches, fans and media will dissect this one for the multitude of if-thens, choosing one of many that would have sent the Seahawks to San Francisco.
But beyond the outcome, there is little debate about one thing: The Seahawks have set themselves up nicely for a few years. Assembled here is a team of youth, speed and strength that has bought into Carroll and Wilson, and once they quit dragging their lower lips, will see that the final game would have been a disaster only if they had quit at 20-0.
“It was an exquisite job of returning to a football game and score like that,” Carroll said. “There aren’t a lot of teams that could do that. I keep telling them this team is really good and we are just getting started.”
The Seahawks already know they have key ingredient — a leader who gets better when the situation gets worse.
“I love it when things are a little bit tight,” Wilson said. “When everybody else is nervous, I get excited. You gotta be clutch in in tough situations. I think we did that as an offense.”
The Super Bowl was visible to the Seahawks from Atlanta. They’ll will play another one next year, when Wilson is smarter and more mature.