It would be easy to say this core group of Seahawks is coming full circle four years and one day after dropping a heartbreaker to the Falcons in the same round of the playoffs. But whether it’s a potential turning point for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks is harder to tell.
What felt in the moment like an opportunity lost proved instead to be a launching pad to greatness.
Following a heart-wrenching 30-28 defeat against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs on Jan. 13, 2013, then-rookie quarterback Russell Wilson made a trip to the Seahawks’ locker room that has since entered franchise lore.
“We’re walking out of the tunnel on the way off the field and he’s already talking about next year and what we’re going to be able to do and all that kind of stuff,’’ coach Pete Carroll remembered recently.
NFC Divisional playoff game, Seahawks at Atlanta, 1:35 p.m., Ch. 13
It was a walk and a talk that would be recalled and recited often the following season as the Seahawks quickly fulfilled the promise they showed that day in Atlanta, winning the franchise’s only Super Bowl the following season.
As the Seahawks rolled through the 2013 season, in fact, the Atlanta game was often referenced as a moment when, despite the defeat, the team knew it had something special.
In Atlanta, Seattle fell behind 20-0 at halftime and 27-7 entering the fourth quarter.
But the Seahawks mounted what was almost one of the greatest comebacks in team history (it would have tied the Seattle record at the time) and among the greatest in NFL playoff history.
A Marshawn Lynch 2-yard touchdown put Seattle ahead with 31 seconds left. But Matt Ryan led a quick drive that resulted in a Matt Bryant 49-yard field goal and the Seahawks headed home.
Carroll admits he will forever lament the two Ryan completions — of 29 yards to Harry Douglas and 19 yards to Tony Gonzalez — that got the Falcons into field-goal range. The Seahawks blitzed on both plays, only to see the Atlanta quarterback find open receivers to move the ball from the Falcons’ 28 to the Seahawks’ 31 and then kick a field goal, all in the span of 23 seconds.
But once the immediate disappointment faded, a broader optimism took hold.
“We had done well enough during the finish of that season, felt momentum and all of that, that we didn’t let that loss really get in the way of looking towards the future,” Carroll said.
Back where it started
Flash forward four years and one day and the Seahawks return to Atlanta for another divisional playoff game.
By the numbers
How the Seahawks have fared in the playoffs since losing to Atlanta in 2013:
Super Bowl trips (won in 2014)
Again an underdog — this time by 4½ points compared to three in 2013.
And again in a game that someday might be viewed as a turning point.
But whereas the Seahawks of 2012 were on a young, innocent climb to the top, the team this season is facing something of a crossroads, having gone from the heights of 13-3 and a Super Bowl title to 12-4 and a loss in the Super Bowl and then 10-6 in 2015 and a loss in the divisional round and 10-5-1 this season and needing to beat Detroit in the wild-card round to get to Atlanta again.
Only 13 players remain from the team that almost beat Atlanta that day — Wilson, punter Jon Ryan, receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, cornerbacks Jeremy Lane, Richard Sherman and DeShawn Shead, safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas and linebackers K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Mike Morgan (Thomas, though, is on Injured Reserve and won’t be able to play against the Falcons. Kicker Steven Hauschka was also on the roster that year but was on Injured Reserve for that game and did not play).
Those players largely remain the core of the team, along with defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, who arrived the next season, leading Seattle to what is now a fifth consecutive playoff appearance.
As the core group has gotten older, it has grown to appreciate the playoff opportunities even more.
Wagner, a rookie on the 2012 team, remembers being told after the Atlanta game how rare such chances can be.
“Everybody was telling us about how guys don’t go to the playoffs, some guys play 13, 14 years, without even sniffing the playoffs,’’ he said. “Here we are in the playoffs our first year being in the league. We liked the taste of the playoffs and we wanted to get back.”
A turning point?
The game this Saturday marks the Seahawks’ 12th in the postseason since 2012, more than half as many as the 19 the franchise had played before that date.
That the Seahawks now are heading to Atlanta for a playoff game leads to the temptation to wonder if things are coming full circle.
It was maybe easy to see the defeat four years ago in Atlanta as a sign of things to come with the Seahawks featuring one of the youngest rosters in the NFL.
Where Seattle is headed now is harder to tell.
Turning points aren’t always easily visible.
The Chuck Knox-era Seahawks went to four postseasons in five years from 1983-88, finally winning the franchise’s first division title in 1988.
It was an older team — Steve Largent would retire a year later and running back Curt Warner would leave Seattle after the 1989 season.
But few would have guessed at the time that the Seahawks would not make the playoffs for another 11 years.
In 2007, another Seahawks team won a fourth consecutive NFC West title, then won a wild-card playoff game before losing to the Packers 42-20 in the divisional round.
That game turned out to be the last for running back Shaun Alexander. The following season saw an injury to Matt Hasselbeck, and a power struggle and the resignation of Mike Holmgren as coach, and another sudden end of an era.
But if the rapid rise in 2012 that ended in Atlanta and propelled them to a Super Bowl title the next year showed the Seahawks how anything is possible, the relative struggles of the past few years have illustrated how slight the difference between good and great can be.
As the years have progressed, a different sort of understanding has set in, thanks to veterans like running back Fred Jackson and fullback Marcel Reece, for whom a single playoff game is a major achievement.
“Even if we didn’t appreciate it there’s always somebody in that locker room that’s going to let you know this doesn’t come easy,’’ Wagner said.
A lesson first learned in Atlanta, where now a new — if still to be determined — one awaits.