The game that finally eliminated the Seahawks from the wild-card race Saturday was a lot like the Seahawks’ season.
They played well enough to win, just not well enough to overcome the kind of mistakes you can’t make against the division champions.
The Seahawks led late in the fourth quarter – they had the San Francisco 49ers on the ropes – only to give up a 41-yard pass from Alex Smith to Michael Crabtree.
It was Smith’s lone completion over 17 yards, but it set up the game-deciding field goal, and negated everything the Seattle defense did on a day when effort wasn’t an issue.
And even then, the Seahawks were in position for a comeback. Needing to reach the San Francisco 30-yard line for a reasonable chance at a winning field goal, the Sea-hawks got to the 46 when quarterback Tarvaris Jackson failed to protect the ball on an ill-advised scramble. Jackson’s fumble rolled all the way to the 36.
If Seattle recovers, Steven Hauschka is preparing for the kick that could extend his team’s faint-but-still-flickering playoff hopes by another day. But safety Donte Whitner got to the ball first, and 78 seconds later, the Seahawks were officially eliminated.
The home finale of the 2011 season mirrored the rest of 2011, a year that both revealed how far Pete Carroll’s team has progressed – and what it must do to bridge the gap from respectability to superiority.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Carroll said after the 19-17 defeat assured the 7-8 Seahawks of finishing with a record no better than .500. “I know we have one game left, and we’re looking forward to getting that done and finishing on a good note, but our football team is so much better than we were early on.
“We can play anybody. I don’t care who it is or where it is. We can play anybody.”
The more prestigious accomplishment, of course, is to beat everybody.
The Seahawks on Saturday had the strength and grit to go toe-to-toe with the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL, but they didn’t have the essential component – mental toughness? – to seal the deal.
“We’ve been in every game this second half of the season,” safety Earl Thomas said. “We’ve just got to finish at the end. When we’re on top, we’ve got to stay on top. We’re going to learn from these hard lessons.”
Seattle owned a 17-16 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but it could have been – should have been – a field-goal resistant advantage of 21-16. With 1:41 remaining before halftime and the ball at the San Francisco 3, Marshawn Lynch bulled his way to within an inch of the end zone.
A prolonged replay review – it upheld the ruling on the field – provided the Seahawks plenty of time to draw up a power run on third down.
But as there appeared to be early movement by Seattle left tackle Paul McQuistan, Jackson took the snap and turned around for the inevitable handoff to Lynch.
Except Lynch wasn’t there: “Beast Mode” was among the many players on the field who presumed a whistle had blown.
Jackson wasn’t sure what he heard, but he took off anyway for the left corner of the end zone – only to find cornerback Carlos Rogers stopping him for no gain.
On fourth down, respecting a defense that would not give up its first rushing touchdown of the season until the fourth quarter, Carroll chose to kick the chip-shot field goal.
Many fans booed the decision to settle for three points, but it was a high-percentage move that salvaged a possession.
The field goal wasn’t the problem.
The problem was the broken play on third-and-inches – the handoff that never evolved into a handoff.
“A really unusual situation,” said Carroll, whose apparent frustration with the officials added a bizarre twist to the sequence: Here was a coach disappointed his team wasn’t charged with a 5-yard penalty for a false start.
“I’m pretty sure we moved, because we all saw it, but they didn’t call it,” Carroll continued. “In that case, we were wishing that they would have called the penalty on us to give us another chance. That’s unfortunate. It shouldn’t have come to that.”
The officials erred, but then, so did the Seahawks.
If there’s no early movement, Lynch takes the handoff, and likely scores a touchdown, and a game that ultimately turns on a fourth-quarter field goal doesn’t turn on a fourth-quarter field goal.
“The plays that we needed to make,” defensive end Red Bryant said, “we didn’t make.”
Bryant’s lament not only described a game, but a season.
The Seahawks are a much better team than they were two months ago, but they’re not good enough to botch third-and-inches touchdown opportunities against the San Francisco 49ers.