Kevin Pierre-Louis admits he was holding on Devin Hester’s punt return to the Atlanta 7-yard line. Seattle gave up a safety two plays later and Atlanta seized the moment and never looked back.

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ATLANTA — There was one play Saturday that took the Seahawks’ momentum and body slammed it into the turf.

There was one play that turned a silent, stunned Georgia Dome into a screaming, spirited one.

Early in the second quarter, with Seattle leading by three, Devin Hester took a punt 80 yards to the Falcons’ 7 in what might have been his most dazzling return in years. Only problem is that Seahawks linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis was flagged for a holding penalty while the punt was still in the air, thus nullifying Hester’s heroics.

Anatomy of a breakdown

Seattle had forced Atlanta into a three-and-out possession early in the second quarter with a 10-7 lead. Devin Hester ripped off an 80-yard punt return to set up the Seahawks at the Atlanta 7-yard line. That’s when things began to go awry:

Kevin Pierre-Louis gets called for holding, wiping out Hester’s return, forcing Seattle to start at its own 7-yard line.

Thomas Rawls loses 3 yards on first down.

Russell Wilson stumbles while dropping back to pass, gets tackled in the end zone for a safety.

Matt Bryant converts a 33-yard field goal to give Atlanta a 12-10 lead. Seattle never led again.

As a result, the ball came all the way back to Seattle’s 7 and, well, Seattle never quite came back.

Falcons 36, Seahawks 20

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“That’s a ridiculously large play in the game,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “The way they (the Falcons) answered the next couple of drives was really the statement of the game. They were able to turn it and we had our shot and we made a mistake — so it’s a huge turnaround.”

More like a crippling turnaround. More like an any-shot-we-had-to-upset-the-scorching-hot-Falcons-just-went-poof turnaround. Sure, it’s hard to pin a 36-20 road loss to a Matt Ryan-led squad on one penalty flag, but if you have even the slightest faith in the power of momentum, you have to concede that was game-changing.

Had the Seahawks been able to find the end zone on first-and-goal from the 7, they would have led 17-7 against a team with a cursed playoff history of late. Outstanding as Ryan was behind center Saturday, he would have been more frantic if trying to make up a 10-point deficit, which can be disastrous against a Seattle defense.

But none of that happened. It’s all hypothetical. With one penalty, the Seahawks went from having the upper hand to letting the game get out of hand.

On Seattle’s next play, Thomas Rawls was stopped for a 3-yard loss. One play later, Seahawks guard Rees Odhiambo inadvertently tripped Russell Wilson in the end zone, resulting in a safety.

Atlanta went on to score on its next three drives, posting 17 unanswered points in the process. The Seahawks never really threatened again.

After the game, Pierre-Louis admitted he was guilty of holding, but defended himself nonetheless. He said Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds was able to get under him, so he was hoping to mitigate the damage by trying to sneak a grab by the officials.

“Knowing the type of player that he was, I was like, all right, I’m going to snag him a little bit so he doesn’t get down the field on (Hester), but the ref was able to see it,” Pierre-Louis said. “I took a chance, but unfortunately that’s what happened.”

Let’s make one point clear here: Kevin Pierre-Louis did not cost his team the game. Seattle’s once vaunted defense allowed 36 points, while the offense had just 13 points through the first 57 minutes. Atlanta was the better team Saturday. No doubt. But the better team doesn’t always win in the NFL, and you have to wonder if that particular penalty is going to linger in players’ minds.

“That definitely shook the momentum, and that kind of took of us out of our game plan,” Seahawks offensive lineman Garry Gilliam said. “We couldn’t run the ball like we wanted to like we did on that first drive. But great teams overcome things like that.”

Russell Wilson had similar thoughts.

“Crazy situation,” said the quarterback, who was forced to press for much of the second half. “(But) you have to be able overcome situations.”

Many of the problems that plagued the Seahawks on Saturday are the same ones that plagued them all season. Their offense was inconsistent, and their secondary got shredded by an A-list quarterback. Based on what we’ve seen over the past few weeks — especially since safety Earl Thomas went down — much of what took place in that playoff game could have been expected.

But if Seattle has had one ace up its sleeve in the Pete Carroll era, it’s that ability to pull out the big play that blind-sides postseason opponents. And while it looked like the Seahawks did that for a brief second, it simply wasn’t to be.

Tough break. Because of one flag, the ball was brought back to the 7. And now, the Seahawks are back to square one.