Again, Seahawks can't muster any fourth-quarter magic and the blame falls on Jackson at quarterback

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In the end, the Seahawks improved so much that it hurts.

Two rookies sat at their lockers, wearing the pain. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin stayed in full uniform and stared at the floor. Cornerback Richard Sherman slid deep into his space and covered his face with a towel. Both players had soared from unknown to essential in the Seahawks’ rapid ascent to respectability, but now they were left to comprehend the harsh conclusion to this tale: playoff hopes dashed — and by their former college coach.

This game was like a final exam. The Seattle football team that couldn’t accomplish elementary things in the season opener at San Francisco in September had morphed into a confident, conscientious and contending bunch less than four months later. And then came the penultimate contest of this season, against the runaway NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers. In the end, the Seahawks showed how far they’ve come but left a clear impression of what it lacks in trying to finish this rebuilding project.

The heartbreaking 19-17 defeat Saturday was a microcosm of the season — progress and pitfalls. In the second half of this season, the Seahawks had avoided their issues just enough to win five of six games entering this one. Ultimately, however, old warts resurfaced.

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“We lost, man,” fullback Michael Robinson said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t feel good.”

In a tough, playoff-like battle before 66,697 at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks were good enough to compete, but not good enough to overcome their woes in the passing game, a key red-zone mishap and some poor offensive execution in the game’s final two minutes.

The Seahawks were thisclose — and that far away — from doing something special. When they revisit this defeat, they’ll look at the botched play on third-and-goal at the 1-yard line that cost them, at least, the chance to have Marshawn Lynch power toward the end zone.

Even though starting wide receivers Sidney Rice and Mike Williams are on injured reserve, they’ll want to know why they couldn’t throw more effectively, especially because Lynch ran for 107 yards and, in theory, should’ve created some opportunities for the Seahawks through the air while the 49ers defense paid more attention to him.

Mostly, though, they’ll examine why they couldn’t seize the moment late in the game.

Actually, they’re already lamenting that part.

Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson bears the largest part of the burden. All season, he has been viewed as a placeholder while the Seahawks figure out their franchise-quarterback problem. At times this season, he has performed better than expected. He’ll never be elite, but he has been functional. In crunch time, however, his flaws show the most.

While it’s true that the entire team must be accountable, Jackson is the quarterback, and he hasn’t produced late in games. The Seahawks couldn’t muster enough fourth-quarter offense in losses to Cincinnati and Washington. They did move the ball late against Atlanta, but Jackson and the offense couldn’t finish the drive and coach Pete Carroll opted to have Steven Hauschka try a 61-yard field goal at the end of that one.

And then there was this game, the last of the late-game misadventures. How close were the Seahawks to making the playoffs? They lost four home games that were up for grabs in the fourth quarter.

Saturday, the Seahawks were down 19-17 and faced a third-and-three at the San Francisco 48-yard line (about 17 yards from being able to attempt a makable 49-yard field goal). Jackson scrambled, didn’t protect the ball and 49ers linebacker Larry Grant forced a fumble. Strong safety Donte Whitner recovered and ended the Seahawks’ best chance to win the game.

Seattle got the ball back with 41 seconds remaining, but the Seahawks’ last-ditch efforts ended with Jackson sailing a pass out of bounds on fourth down.

Well, uh, you’ve been pleading with him to learn how to throw the ball away, right?

Not in that situation, though.

Before crunch time, Jackson thought to himself, “It’s about time that we put one of these drives together at the end of the game to be able to win it.” But it didn’t happen this time, either.

“We’ve got to be able to do that,” Jackson said. “We didn’t make it happen.”

Thisclose — and that far away. The Seahawks have done a lot of heavy lifting to return to competitiveness. But as they learned in this final exam, the leap from respectable to true contention is more daunting, too. It will require an upgrade at quarterback.

And it will require more fine tuning, too. The Seahawks will be better for making something out of a seemingly lost season. But they’ll have to wear this pain for a while.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer.

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