By Chris Cluff
READ MORE: The Story Behind Showtime's New Russell Westbrook Documentary: 'This Is Russell Claiming His Own Narrative'
The Seahawks’ offense recovered from a horrible first half with a spectacular finish, but the defense did not, and that was the difference as the Falcons rallied to beat the Seahawks 30-28 in a rousing divisional playoff game Sunday in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
Oddly, this game set up much the same way their meeting in 2011 did: The Falcons dominated the first half, the Seahawks rallied in the second and Atlanta won by the exact 30-28 score.
The Falcons had stunning success on the ground Sunday, rushing for 167 yards and averaging a shocking 6.4 yards per carry. That, more than the Falcons’ celebrated passing game, was the reason Atlanta dominated the first half.
The Falcons led 20-0 at halftime, but Russell Wilson rallied the Hawks from the deficit, nearly making them the second team in NFL history to rally from 20 down in the second half to win. Instead, they became the 57th to lose in that scenario when Matt Bryant booted a 49-yard field goal with 11 seconds left.
The Seahawks bowed out in the divisional round for the second time in Pete Carroll’s three seasons as coach, but this is a much different team.
If the Hawks can improve their defense, they will be Super Bowl contenders for years.
“I hate to be dealing with this right now that we got beat today, but the future is so bright for this team, and they know that,” Carroll told reporters. “They’ll live with this frustration for a long time.”
Wilson, no longer a rookie after 18 games and another stellar finish to a game, told reporters, “When the game was over, I was very disappointed, but … walking off the field, I got so excited for the next opportunity, next year. Looking forward to what we have in the future. We have a great football team.”
That about sums up the feelings of everyone in Seattle: Very disappointed but very excited.
Wilson had the game of his young career, showing a national audience he is a superstar in the making.
After a rough first half in which he and the offense could not finish off drives, even though they moved the ball well, Wilson took the Hawks on four touchdown drives in six second-half possessions; he rallied them from 20 points down to take the lead, 28-27, with 31 seconds left.
Wilson set a team playoff record with 385 yards passing, throwing two TD passes and running for a score. It was nothing short of a stellar, star-making performance for the diminutive QB who has earned the admiration of everyone in and around the NFL this season.
“He’s an amazing football player. I think he proved it again,” Carroll said. “It’s so unheard of for rookies to do something like that. He ain’t a rookie. … I can’t even imagine how he can get better.”
The scary thing for NFL defenses is that he can indeed get better.
He’ll learn not to take a sack in key situations, like he did at the end of the first half, with the clock running down under 10 seconds and the Hawks poised at the Falcons’ 20-yard line. It was the second straight possession on which the Hawks failed to get points in the red zone, and it proved hugely detrimental.
Beyond that, though, Wilson did everything he was asked to do and more. He even led the Hawks in rushing yards as Marshawn Lynch was obviously bothered by his sprained foot. He gained just 46 yards on 16 carries while Wilson led the Hawks with 60 yards (on seven attempts).
Zach Miller made up for the poor running game, though. The tight end, an afterthought for most of the season, caught a game-best eight passes for a career-high 142 yards and also scored on a 3-yard pass that cut Atlanta’s lead to 27-21 with 9:13 left.
Miller had an incredible two playoff games, catching 12 passes for 190 yards, a TD and a two-point conversion. Everyone has to hope Wilson uses him like that from the first game next season.
Golden Tate was a big factor, too, coming up with six catches for 103 yards. He caught a 29-yard scoring pass from Wilson on the first drive of the third quarter. It was a great finish to a very productive third season for Tate.
But none of it was quite enough.
If only the offense had managed to score any points at all in the first half, the Seahawks would be going to San Francisco for the NFC title game next Sunday.
The defense essentially slept through the entire first half. The Falcons did not punt and led 20-0. Then they ran off an 80-yard drive to keep the lead at 20 after the Seattle offense had driven 80 yards itself for its first TD in the third quarter.
The Falcons burned up much of the third quarter with that drive, and it seemed to be the nail in the coffin until Wilson rallied the Hawks to three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
The defense woke up long enough to stop the Falcons on three straight possessions in the fourth, allowing the offense to catch up. But then the defense ruined the historic comeback try in the final 31 seconds, when they let Matt Ryan hit Harry Douglas for 22 yards and tight end Tony Gonzalez for 19. That set up Matt Bryant’s winning 49-yard field goal.
It was the fourth time this season the defense had given up the tying or winning points on a final drive in the fourth quarter. They melted down in Detroit, Miami and Chicago, too (Wilson bailed them out in overtime in Chicago).
The Hawks held their own against the Falcons’ passing game and would have settled for those numbers (250 yards, three TDs) if they had not gotten burned so badly in the running game.READ MORE: 11 African Lions Test Positive For COVID At Denver Zoo
In the first half, the Hawks could not tackle Michael Turner or Jacquizz Rodgers. Turner opened with a 15-yard run on the second play and busted off a 33-yarder in the second quarter. Rodgers broke a bunch of tackles on a 45-yard run in the second quarter. The Falcons scored 13 points on those drives.
Turner rushed for 98 yards on 14 carries, and Rodgers had 64 yards on 10 rushes. The Falcons had been averaging under 90 yards a game, so their success on the ground was somewhat surprising.
Maybe it should not have been, though. After all, the Hawks had been gashed several times in the second half of the season — the 49ers ran for 175 in Week 7, Minnesota ran for 243 (182 by Adrian Peterson), Miami ran for 189, Chicago ran for 132.
They have to get that fixed in the offseason by adding at least one big, run-stuffing defensive tackle. They also need to hope Red Bryant’s bad foot heals. His play obviously has suffered because of it, and it showed especially in the two playoff games.
The Hawks also need to find a pass rusher. With Chris Clemons out with a torn ACL, the Hawks got almost no pressure on Ryan. They hit him once in the first quarter, leading to an interception by Bobby Wagner, and they bothered him into making a bad throw that was picked off by Earl Thomas in the fourth quarter. But that was it. No sacks.
First-round pick Bruce Irvin was a complete non-factor, proving that he is simply not cut out to play every down. Unless he proves otherwise next season, he will be the failed first-round pick many of us already think he is.
In the end, the defense seemed poised to redeem itself in the fourth quarter after three bad periods, but that last quick drive doomed them and their team.
All in all, a pretty dismal effort.
For a minute at the end, it looked like new kicker Ryan Longwell might get a chance for a long attempt to win the game. But the Hawks could not get closer than a 65-yard try, which is far too long for all but the league’s best kickers.
Leon Washington did not get many chances to return kicks as Matt Bryant boomed four into the end zone. Washington went 37 yards with the one he did get to take out, and he averaged 12 yards on his two punt returns. It’s too bad he didn’t get more chances as he seemed poised to bust one.
Jon Ryan did not have a good day. He punted just three times, but he was not very good on any of them. His first was horrible (31 yards); his second went just 29 yards, to Atlanta’s 13; and his last went 50 yards but hit the goal line for a touchback.
There was plenty of blame to go around for the coaches.
Darrell Bevell had trouble getting into a good play-calling groove in the first half. It didn’t help that Lynch could not get going, but Bevell needed to put the game in Wilson’s hands earlier.
The big botch was the two short-yardage plays at the Atlanta 11-yard line in the second quarter, with Seattle trailing 13-0. Carroll was right to go for it because his defense was getting eaten alive and had shown no signs of stopping the Falcons. But the play calls and execution were horrendous.
On third-and-1, with Marshawn Lynch having his foot checked out on the sideline, they ran Robert Turbin. He got nothing.
Then, on fourth down, with Lynch back in, they handed off to Michael Robinson on a fullback dive play that had worked all season. It did not work this time as the Hawks failed to block it and he got stuffed for a loss.
Carroll explained it: “We had a little screw up on third down there, and we didn’t get the communication clear. On fourth down we thought we could knock it out, but they did a real nice job with a little stunt and hit us in the backfield, on a running play that we make first downs on all the time.”
It was far too conservative and predictable, which is why it failed. The third-down play should have been something like a play-action pass to Miller.
On defense, Gus Bradley was perhaps handcuffed by the personnel he had at his disposal, but he didn’t make any great coaching moves to offset the absence of Jason Jones (IR) and Clemons.
Other than a couple of blitzes, he was unable to figure out how to pressure Ryan. And he inexplicably had rookie Winston Guy covering Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez in the open field on several occasions. Talk about a major mismatch. Matt Ryan exploited it, of course.
The worst was his soft zone at the end of the game that allowed Ryan to get the Falcons in range for the winning kick. That was inexcusable.
If Bradley is a coaching candidate, other teams can have him. The Hawks have to do much better on defense in 2013.
The Hawks also botched the end of the first half, mismanaging the clock as they threatened deep in Atlanta territory. They took timeouts after consecutive plays, leaving themselves with none in the final 25 seconds. After Wilson was sacked with less than 10 seconds left, the Hawks were unable to get another play off and ended up going into halftime scoreless. (Fox messed up the superimposed TV clock on that one, making viewers believe the Hawks had actually gotten the snap off in time.)
At the end of the game, Carroll followed the herd with the worst coaching move in football: Icing the kicker. It gave Bryant a nice practice kick, which he missed. Carroll was upset he took the practice kick, but that’s what the coach gets for waiting until the last second to call timeout. Just a dumb move by any coach who ever does it.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Seahawks news, see CBS Sports Seattle.
Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.MORE NEWS: 'What Is That Sound?' Howling 'Atmospheric River' Winds Make Golden Gate Bridge 'Sing'
Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.