John McGrath: Seahawks’ motivation Saturday? Last Jan. 13 in Atlanta

Staff WriterJanuary 10, 2014 

Although the Seattle Seahawks are energized by the NFL’s noisiest crowds, it’s the sound of silence that will be motivating them Saturday.

In their last playoff game, a year ago this week, Marshawn Lynch’s late touchdown burst gave the Seahawks a one-point lead against the Falcons in Atlanta. Lynch’s score capped what appeared to be a stunning 21-point fourth-quarter comeback, turning the stomachs of fans all too familiar with the Falcons’ early exits from postseason play.

The visitors had converted the bustling buzz of a victory countdown into a morbid hush. As I glanced at the pallid faces in the crowd from my seat in the Georgia Dome press box, I was reminded of a similar playoff comeback I covered in Cleveland, where the Browns, owning a 20-13 lead, had pinned the Broncos inside the Denver 3-yard line with a little more than five minutes remaining in the AFC championship game Jan. 11, 1987.

Sixteen years after John Elway led the Broncos on a drive so improbable that no adjectives were necessary — it’s still known, simply, as The Drive — the Seahawks were on the brink of creating an equally indelible playoff memory.

And then the storybook ending unraveled. Atlanta had 31 seconds to put Matt Bryant in position for the winning field goal. The Falcons needed only 23 seconds to pull out the 30-28 win.

When the New Orleans Saints face the Seahawks on Saturday in a divisional playoff game at CenturyLink Field, they’ll be fueled by a determination to avenge the embarrassing defeat they suffered five weeks ago.

But the Saints won’t have full dibs on the extra-motivation factor, because the Seahawks also have a score to settle. That so-close-yet-so-far playoff game in Atlanta still stings.

While coach Pete Carroll dwells on the importance of thinking in the present tense — what happened in 2013, Carroll will tell you, should stay in 2013 — NFL players are not robots. They’re human beings with proud egos and keen memories.

With a one-point lead and 31 seconds separating them from a shot at San Francisco in the NFC championship game, the Hawks had the Falcons where they wanted them — down and almost out. A crowd rocking in anticipation of a surprisingly easy victory (after Jason Snelling’s touchdown catch for Atlanta made the score 27-7 late in the third quarter, an ESPN win probability estimated Seattle’s chances of winning at 1.4 percent) had been stilled.

Ah, but it was those same Falcons fans who had the last laugh. They spilled onto the sidewalks outside the Georgia Dome to celebrate, while the Seahawks trudged toward the team bus awaiting them near the corner of Haunted Place and No Way.

“We never want to have that feeling again,” Hawks cornerback Richard Sherman said Wednesday. “We never want to feel that regret and anger and frustration, knowing we should have won that game. That’s the motivation for us.”

The 2012 Seahawks were eliminated Jan. 13, 2013. In some ways, it seems like a generation ago. Gus Bradley, coordinator of a Seattle defense that allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to reboot the Falcons with two throws — Ryan completed a 22-yard pass to Harry Douglas and a 19-yard pass to Tony Gonzalez — just finished his first year as head coach in Jacksonville.

Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who made the tick-too-late tackle of Gonzalez at the Seattle 31-yard line, hasn’t appeared in a game since suffering a groin injury Nov. 10. Between a season-ending suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on banned substances and his expired contract, it’s virtually certain the original “Legion of Boom” member won’t play for the Seahawks again.

Veteran Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant retired before the 2013 season. Gonzalez retired from the Falcons two weeks ago.

How long has it been since the Seahawks came within a couple of pass receptions and a field goal from completing one of the all-time comebacks in pro football history? Put it this way: The words “Percy Harvin” and “hip surgery” never had been spoken, or typed, in the same sentence.

And yet, the Seahawks’ 30-28 defeat last Jan. 13 seems as recent as the voicemails I’ve yet to check since Wednesday. There are two kinds of seasons in the NFL — the 16-game prelude to the playoffs, and the actual playoffs. Though the Hawks went 13-3 during the prelude, they understand 13-3 won’t mean beans if they don’t return to The Clink next week for the NFC championship.

The Seattle Seahawks are opening the playoff portion of their season on a one-game losing streak. The pain from Atlanta lingers, and the only thing that can make the pain go away is to begin next week on a one-game winning streak.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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