Monday, January 14, 2013

The Night After: Seahawks Bow Out, Lose 30-28 To Falcons

My son sat silently next to me on the drive back from an impromptu trip to Five Guys where we attempted to drown our sorrows in oil and grease. "Don't ever let depression get a hold of you," I told him. "It's the most useless emotional state to be in. Find anything that will make you feel anything else. Anger, happiness, stress, anything is better." A day later, I still hold to that sentiment, but mourning has a place as well. There are so many great days ahead for this team and this fan base, but today is not one of them. Today, we mourn  the best team in football losing in excruciating fashion.

Very few will be comfortable naming Seattle the best team in the NFL. That is okay. I have seen every team left in the playoffs. Seattle beats every single one of them on a neutral field more times than not. This team became what I knew they could become. Those that read this blog know my love for stats, but it was the parts of this team that cannot be quantified that led me to predict a special season. And, oh what a ride it has been.

The game yesterday typified what we have come to know all year--Seattle is so talented that they are really playing themselves. No team in football can stay with them when they find their footing. Seattle was so much better than the Falcons that they overcame a twenty point deficit too quickly. They slept through the first half. Something Seattle fans have seen all-too-often in 10 AM starts to think it is a coincidence. Pete Carroll loves to boast about never discussing "fast starts" with his team, as he likes to focus on finishing strong. He may want to at least talk about getting out of bed before halftime. 

Many fans were furious about the defense surrendering all those points, especially in the first half. Not me. This Falcons offense was primed for this game, and was destined to score. The much bigger problem was the Seahawks offense. The fumble by Lynch was an absolute killer. That drive had all the makings of a touchdown that would have put the team ahead 7-3, or at least a field goal to tie. It was coming off an early Matt Ryan interception that would have put so much more pressure on a team with fragile confidence. 

There has already been lots of second-guessing Carroll's decision to go for it on fourth down when the team was trailing 13-0. It may be worth questioning the play call, as it has been all over the team's short yardage tape. The playoffs is a great time to deviate from your tendencies, especially against a team that had two weeks to break down your film. If I was Atlanta, that is the one short yardage play I am ready for, and they were. Handing the ball off to Robinson has worked in those situations all season, and making a team stop what you believe in is a defensible decision. Going for it did not bother me. Not converting certainly did.

Seattle's first half on offense went: punt, fumble, punt, downs, time runs out at half. That means three of their five possessions in the first half had absolutely crippling errors. That is how you nearly out-gain your opponent in a half and manage to be losing by twenty points. That is tough to do. 

The key to the game ended up being exactly what I thought it would be, run differential. There was so much talk about the Falcons passing game, but their chances of winning went up dramatically if they could run the football. Chris Clemons injury showed up there, but it was more than that. The Seahawks were so committed to pass defense that they could not adequately gang tackle Michael Turner. The Falcons averaged just 79 yards rushing in their last eight games, but managed 167 against the Seahawks. 

Seattle, meanwhile, had been averaging over 200 yards rushing the last six games, but came away with 123 against a poor Atlanta run defense. That was their lowest total since playing Miami, and third-lowest total of the season. A positive run differential for Atlanta was not something I thought possible in this match-up. Take that away, and their passing totals are pretty ordinary.

Roddy White led the receivers with five catches for 76 yards. Those are not exactly dominant numbers. Matt Ryan threw for 250 yards, but 41 of those came in the final 30 seconds and he had two picks as well. 

Bruce Irvin was a non-factor. One can only hope he uses this game as motivation to work his tail off this off-season to come back stronger. There are no guarantees Clemons will be ready for the start of next year. I did not expect dominance from Irvin, but I did expect more than what I saw.

The biggest coaching gripe I had was the defensive calls on the last drive. The Falcons previous three drives had combined for 28 yards and an interception. Yet, with the game on the line, the Seahawks changed what had been working. Carroll was heard saying on the radio this morning that they pressured, and it was not a prevent defense. That may be strictly accurate, but Seahawks players were heard calling it a "soft zone," and did not sound pleased about it, according to Ian Furness of KJR. The result was all too familiar, both for Seahawks fans and  Falcons fans.

Atlanta pulled off an even more amazing rabbit-out-of-the-hat victory against Carolina this year when they trailed 28-27, and took over at their own 1-yard line with less than a minute to play. They completed a 50-yard bomb to get them to mid-field, and then another two passes to get in range for a field goal to win 30-28. Ouch. It was all I could think about when I saw how much time was left following the Lynch touchdown.

By the way, for a team whose number one priority is "the ball," they sure have trouble holding onto it when they cross the goal line. That was a problem all year long.

The offense and the defense had their ups and their downs, but the special teams was almost all down. Jon Ryan picked a terrible time to have his worst game as a Seahawk. Ryan Longwell was mediocre on kickoffs and kick coverage was not great. Atlanta getting the ball out to the 28-yard line on that final drive was inexcusable. 

For all the frustrations, it is hard to feel anything but jubilant about the performance of one Russell Wilson. He set all sorts of records, but the way he did it was more impressive than any statistic can convey. He was relentless. Back-to-back touchdown drives of 80 yards to start the second half, and four touchdowns in their first five possessions. There was no sense of give at any point. Drew Brees would be proud. Those greats have this air of inevitability around them where no lead feels safe. People are understandably all over Colin Kaepernick's jock right now, but when has he overcome serious adversity? His shining moment was responding to the Patriots tying the game in New England. Wilson brought his team back from a 14-0 and 20-0 deficit in playoff games. His first two playoff games! It is worth mentioning that a little bird told me Matt Flynn played a meaningful role in helping Wilson through the second half of yesterday's game. That guy has been nothing but class all year.

There are sure to be some rookie of the year voters who will be claiming pregnant chads in their ballots. Nobody can reasonably deny who the most accomplished rookie in the NFL was this year. 

Zach Miller and Golden Tate deserve a tip of the cap for special performances as well. Both players stepped up and made fantastic plays all day long. Tate may be the most adept at being in tune with Wilson when the play breaks down. He flashes across Wilson's field of vision with regularity, and is being rewarded for it. Miller could challenge for an All-Pro spot at tight end next season. He very well may be the best blocking tight end in football, and may end up breaking the Seahawks record for receptions by a tight end in a season next year.

This one is going to hurt for a long time. It was a classic. Carroll appears to have a knack for historic playoff games in Seattle. His first was the biggest upset, by point spread, in NFL history and resulted in seismic activity in SODO. His second quietly featured an NFL record-tying 21 points in the 4th quarter when they lost to the Bears. The third saw the second team in NFL history to come back from a 14 point first quarter deficit on the road. And you know about his last. 

Nobody could watch that game and leave feeling anything but awe for what Seattle can become. Next year will not look like this one. Schedule, coaches, draft choices, free agents, injuries, player development are all variables that ensure change. We saw a team this year that was good enough to win the Super Bowl. Enough variables lined up to where that was a realistic possibility, and leaning toward a probability. The front office, coaches, and players will need to use this off-season as a spring board. They must hold onto the pain of this loss and use it as fuel to propel them to greater heights. The goals heading into this season were things like a winning record, making the playoffs, finding a quarterback. Those are now so far beneath the team, they look like base camp from halfway up Mt. Everest. Goals next year will be things like home-field advantage, sweeping the division, Defensive Player of the Year, NFL MVP, Super Bowl. 

Let this one sink in. Allow yourself to feel anger and disappointment. Moral victories, even of this magnitude, will no longer be celebrated. This franchise is transforming. It's best seasons will not include losing it's last game any more. Not now. Remember what this game feels like. Remember what losing feels like. It may be a while before this team loses again.

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