By Sam McPherson
Despite playing a great game last weekend at home against the Detroit Lions in the NFC playoffs, the Seattle Seahawks went on the road to Atlanta this weekend and played one of their worst games in recent memory. The Atlanta Falcons beat the Seahawks, 36-20, in an NFC Divisional Round Playoff matchup to advance to next weekend’s NFC Championship Game. Now, Seattle’s uneven 2016 season has come to an end without a Super Bowl title to match the 2013 season’s success.
The Seahawks made a lot of mistakes against the Falcons, in all phases of the game. These Seattle mistakes weren’t even forced errors, although Atlanta played very well on its own. But special-teams penalties, missed throws on offense and blown coverages on defense opened a lot of doors for the Falcons to run up the score after the Seahawks took a second-quarter 10-7 lead and looked like they were ready for more. Atlanta was able to limit its own mistakes in the process, and Seattle wasn’t capable of forcing its opponent into enough errors on the day to make up for its own.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson played well enough overall in a statistical sense, but he missed some big throws downfield to open receivers that could have changed the outcome of the game. However, it’s hard to fault the QB for this loss. Wilson kept pushing the whole time and was the only ground game the team possessed. His receivers played well enough as well, with seven different Seattle players making catches on the day. Toss in Wilson’s 49 yards rushing and the fact that neither interception thrown was on him, and it’s clear Wilson isn’t at fault for this loss. Wideouts Doug Baldwin (five catches, 80 yards) and Paul Richardson (four catches, 83 yards) both had good games again, which bodes well for 2017 and beyond.
The big blame here has to go on the offensive line, which couldn’t open a lot of running lanes against a mediocre Atlanta rush defense or protect its star QB. Running back Thomas Rawls, who looked so good against Detroit last week, struggled to move the chains against the Falcons, gaining just 34 yards on 11 attempts. Wilson’s legs made up for some of that, but the line also allowed the mobile QB to get sacked three times—including one time for a safety when the right guard stepped on Wilson’s foot immediately after the snap. The pressure on Wilson also caused an interception as he was hit during the throw, allowing the ball to float in the air for a bit too long. The second interception was tight end Luke Willson’s fault as he let the ball get taken away from him as he fell to the ground.
It’s hard to blame the defense for a lot here, as the unit was already playing without star safety Earl Thomas. But when the team also lost defensive backs Deshawn Shead and Jeremy Lane to in-game injuries, it was next to impossible for Seattle’s secondary to stop the Falcons’ top-ranked scoring offense and probable league MVP Matt Ryan. The Atlanta QB made a few errant throws that were very close to being intercepted, but the Seahawks couldn’t capitalize on those chances, especially as the game got out of hand. That was the outcome right there, in essence. Seattle’s run defense did a solid job overall, but Ryan’s numbers (338 yards, three touchdowns) were too easily attained against a wounded defense.
Special Teams: C-
This may seem to be a harsh grade, and it’s a lot to suggest the game would have been different if not for some holding penalties on big returns by Devin Hester. However, the game literally changed on a dime when Hester’s huge punt return in the second quarter was negated by a holding call. Then came the sack of Wilson for the safety, and the Falcons scored 19 straight points to turn a three-point deficit into a huge lead. If Hester’s return yardage had counted, Seattle would have had a chance to go up 10 points in the second quarter instead of falling behind by nine at halftime. Hester did well in this game, but two penalties in the first half erased big returns totaling 97 yards—and none bigger than the blunder on the punt return that turned the tide of the game.
Whenever the mentor faces the mentee, it’s always an interesting chess match. However, in this game, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn clearly was playing with a fuller deck than Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. These two teams were matched evenly earlier in the season, but the Seahawks just suffered too many key injuries on defense to stay competitive against the league’s probable MVP. The special-teams blunders were really bad in this game, though, and they continued too long before being corrected. That was very damaging to Seattle’s chances for winning the game. The team didn’t quit, despite being down big late in the game, and that’s a credit to Carroll and his veterans.
The Seahawks fly home to ponder what could have been, again. The last three seasons have ended with disappointing losses where the Seattle roster probably feels like it could have won its final game. Now, the team has many months to get healthy, regroup, re-stock the roster and prepare to defend its NFC West Division title against some mediocre competition from Arizona, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Seahawks’ Super Bowl window has not closed, but the team definitely needs to stay healthier in 2017 if it wants to win the second NFL championship in franchise history. The offensive line needs to be a priority, however, if Seattle wants to make a run to Super Bowl LII.