The offense looked great on the first drive, but couldn’t do much after that. Meantime, the defense appeared to miss Earl Thomas more than ever.
ATLANTA – Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls had one thought after Seattle drove efficiently down the field the first time it had the ball Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons.
“We felt like we had ’em,’’ Rawls said.
But while the Seahawks showed that for once they could start fast on the road in a playoff game, they couldn’t sustain it. The penalty on Kevin Pierre-Louis that nullified Devin Hester’s 80-yard punt return in the second quarter was an obvious turning point.
But the final stats also showed the better team won — the Falcons outgained Seattle 422-309, averaged 6.1 yards per play (third most against the Seahawks this season) and forced two turnovers.
Seattle had entered the game in an unusual role as a decided underdog — the betting line increased from 3½ points early in the week to 6½ by kickoff — a role it has thrived in.
But Saturday, it merely made the oddsmakers look like they knew what they were doing.
Seattle knew it might need to win a shootout. But after some bright moments early, the Seahawks largely wilted against a young Atlanta defense.
After gaining 89 yards on the first drive, Seattle had just 131 the next two quarters as the Falcons blew the game open.
The pass protection was stellar early. Garry Gilliam, largely matched up against Vic Beasley, who led the NFL with 15½ sacks, kept Beasley at bay on what was a 33-yard pass from Russell Wilson to Paul Richardson on Seattle’s second series to set up field goal, for instance.
And Wilson had plenty of time on most plays on the first drive of the game when he was 4 of 4 for 40 yards while Rawls rushed six times for 29 yards.
But once the Falcons got the lead and the Georgia Dome crowd got into it, the Atlanta defense got more aggressive and the Seahawks couldn’t consistently respond.
Rawls, so dynamic last week in gaining 161 yards, was held to just 5 yards the final three quarters as the Seattle rushing attack largely consisted of Wilson scrambling — he led the Seahawks with 49 yards on six attempts.
Wilson was far from flawless throwing, notably missing an open Doug Baldwin deep down the middle early in the fourth quarter.
And the offensive line took a hit when Germain Ifedi suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter and was out for a while.
Boy, did the Seahawks miss Earl Thomas down the stretch of the season. Atlanta’s 36 points were the third time Seattle allowed 34 or more since he went down with a broken leg against Carolina on Dec. 4.
It was also the second time in that span the Seahawks never got within 10 points in the fourth quarter after having been within 10 points in the fourth quarter of every game dating to 2011 before his absence.
Atlanta didn’t take or get a lot of deep shots against the Seahawks. But the Falcons kept just moving it, and Thomas’ replacement — Steven Terrell — missed tackles a few times that led to big plays. The secondary was even more vulnerable when DeShawn Shead left with a possible torn ACL in the third quarter, replaced by rookie undrafted free agent DeAndre Elliott (Jeremy Lane then left for a time with cramps, as well, which had Neiko Thorpe playing some at cornerback).
Seattle got some pressure on Matt Ryan but not enough, particularly out of a four-man rush.
The Seahawks tried to blitz, but that backfired a few times, notably when Ryan lofted the ball over the oncoming line to running back Devonta Freeman for a 53-yard gain that set up a field goal in the third quarter.
Ryan missed on a few throws and Atlanta also had one drop or the score might have been worse.
Atlanta also got the running game going better as the game went along, finishing with 99 yards on 29 attempts.
Richard Sherman largely shadowed Julio Jones early in the game. Jones had three catches on three targets on Atlanta’s first scoring drive, all on Sherman, and by the second half the much-ballyhooed matchup seemed largely overshadowed.
Hester almost really paid off.
His 80-yard return was almost the kind of break the Seahawks needed to win a game like this, and his 50-yard kickoff return after Atlanta’s first touchdown got Seattle quickly into range for a field goal to retake the lead.
But the penalty on Pierre-Louis was hard to overcome and brings the grade down a lot in this area.
A Jon Ryan punt in the second quarter took a fortuitous Seattle bounce and was downed at the Atlanta 1. But the Falcons then drove 99 yards for a touchdown that signaled this game was going their way.