The last time Russell Wilson was in Georgia for a playoff game, he pulled off heroics and issued proclamations that still reverberate throughout the Seahawks franchise.
He was a rookie then. He seemed precocious.
Turns out, it’s just who he is.
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The quarterback everyone said was too short led Seattle on a tall task in Atlanta on Jan. 13, 2013. Down 27-7 in the NFC divisional playoffs with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Wilson then completed seven of 11 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown. He ran for another score. He willed the Seahawks to a third TD and the lead, 28-27, with 34 seconds left.
But instead of the NFC championship game in his first season, Wilson and his Seahawks went home. The defense allowed two long passes by Matt Ryan, then Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal in the final seconds of a crushing loss, 30-28.
“It was heartbreaking,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said this week.
Yet as they trudged off the Georgia Dome field and up the tunnel to their locker room, the Seahawks could hear an upbeat voice already talking “Next year!” Already foreshadowing what wondrous accomplishments they were about to realize.
“We’re walking out of the tunnel on the way off the field and he’s already talking about next year and what we’re going to be able to do and all that kind of stuff,” Carroll said about Wilson. “It was a pretty clear indicator at that point — if nothing else had told us before then — that this guy really is looking to the future, always going and always believing that things are going to happen right and good and all of that.
“It was a pretty clear message.”
It still is.
Asked four years later what he learned about Wilson on that stunning Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, Seahawks All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said: “The resiliency.”
“Like we are never out of a game,” said Wagner, a 2012 rookie classmate of Wilson’s. “I think that’s kind of where that started.”
Wilson and the Seahawks (11-5-1) are going back inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday for another NFC divisional playoff opposite Ryan and his high-flying Falcons (11-5).
Ryan is 1-4 in the playoffs. His only win was that one four years ago over Seattle.
Wilson has eight wins in 11 career postseason games. He has started two Super Bowls. Counting playoffs, including last weekend’s 26-6 victory over Detroit in the wild card round, he has 64 career wins. Those are the most in NFL history over the first five years of a quarterback’s career.
Yet through all that Wilson still remembers what he was thinking in that tunnel after the last game he played in Atlanta.
“Basically the thought process was: You can get down when you lose a game sometimes; that’s the initial thought for most people,” Wilson said this week. “For me, I was just thinking about the opportunity, what was next for our football team. I got a great sense of great things coming. That was kind of the thought process when I was leaving, coming out of the tunnel to go back to the locker room.
“I just believed we could go win the Super Bowl next year and find a way.”
They did. The 2013 Seahawks went 13-3 in the regular season. They stormed through the playoffs at home. They crushed Denver’s record-setting offense, 43-8, in Super Bowl 48. Seattle had its first NFL championship.
The Seahawks have been to the playoffs every year since.
“With the players that we’ve had and the character of guys we’ve had for the past five years, and the work ethic and conviction we play with week in and week out, it’s been a great ride so far,” Wilson said.
“We take one day at a time. We’ve always enjoyed every game, every process, every practice, every meeting. I think that’s why we’ve been successful over the past five years.”
How do the Seahawks succeed on Saturday against the NFL’s highest-scoring offense? How do they get back to the NFC title game for the third time in four years?
Foremost, Wilson needs help.
He needs the running game to show as much consistency this weekend as it showed in its revival last weekend. Lead back Thomas Rawls plowed behind fullback Marcel Reece, and more straight-ahead, man-on-man blocking from Seattle’s maligned offensive line helped the team gain 177 yards rushing in the win over Detroit. It was the second-biggest game on the ground this season for the Seahawks.
That running game may be getting rookie C.J. Prosise back in it. On Friday, the Seahawks listed their third-round draft choice as questionable to play for the first time in seven weeks. Carroll said Thursday the team will make a game-day decision on Prosise. He practiced all this past week for the first time since he broke his scapula on Nov. 20 against Philadelphia. If he plays against Atlanta, the former Notre Dame wide receiver will get at least a role on third downs as a pass catcher.
If he does, Seattle will be as stacked as it’s been all season in what was the NFL’s 25th-ranked rushing backfield. Rawls is coming off a game in which he romped for a season-high and Seahawks’ playoff-record 161 yards.
Reece, a four-time Pro Bowl fullback, has become a bigger contributor in his four games since signing as a free agent, including the first playoff game of his nine-year career.
On defense, the Seahawks need to cover for the glaring hole Atlanta will target in the back of their secondary. Three-time All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas had two huge hits to separate Falcons receivers from passes on Oct. 16, plus one of Ryan’s seven interceptions in 541 pass attempts this season. That was in the Seahawks’ 26-24 home win over the Falcons. Thomas is now out for the season because of a broken tibia; Steven Terrell is making his first career starts in Thomas’ place.
Seattle’s surest way to cover for Thomas’ absence is for Pro Bowl defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, plus 10-sack man Frank Clark, to do what they did in that previous meeting: Hit and sack Ryan. Seattle’s four sacks of Ryan in October tied for the most the flying Falcon took this regular season. And the 13 hits the Seahawks put on Ryan were the most he got absorbed all season.
Bennett, Avril and Clark could win this game almost by themselves by affecting Ryan’s ability to find All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones (likely to be shadowed by Richard Sherman), or Atlanta’s three tight ends and two dangerous running backs. Davonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 85 catches in the regular season, two more than Jones.
Asked the best way to slow down Ryan, who may win the NFL’s most valuable player award for the 2016 season, Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said: “You put him on the ground.”
He didn’t smile. He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t need to.
If those key issues go Seattle’s way, Wilson and the Seahawks will likely again be walking up that same tunnel where four years ago the resilient, upbeat quarterback set a championship azimuth for an entire franchise. This time they would be on their way to their third conference title game in four years.
“Guys really believed it. We all did,” Wilson said of what he predicted in Atlanta four years ago. “I think the way we came back, too. … Just how we kept coming, coming back and fighting and guys were making great catches, getting first downs, touchdowns.
“The game is never over. That’s what I always believe. I believe I will play 60 minutes no matter what the circumstances are, no matter how much you’re up, how much you’re down by. We all play that way. So that determination, that mindset, that championship-caliber of mindset, I think that’s crucial. I think that’s why we’ve been able to have great comebacks: The game is never over.
“When you have that mindset, that championship mindset, a lot of great things happen. And a lot of wins and championships happen.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle