Pete Carroll entered another Seahawks’ visiting locker room in mid-January full of the emotions of a season abruptly ended.
Those emotions were boiling as much or more than swirling.
For the second consecutive postseason, Seattle was out in round two, this time because the Atlanta Falcons raced past them 36-20 on Saturday in an NFC divisional playoff game. It wasn’t really that close over the final 2 ½ quarters at the rockin’ Georgia Dome.
Some had tears in their eyes. Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett had rage. He erupted at a Seattle television reporter.
But the coach’s message was of reassurance, and resolve.
"The connection and leadership within, we are in the middle of it," Carroll told his players. "Right in the middle of it.
"We are just still in the process. And that is what this feels like. The beginning and middle of it. And not the end of it."
"It" being the Seahawks’ string of championship runs after their fifth consecutive postseason just ended. Two of those appearances ended in the Super Bowl.
Not this one.
Of all the stars and keys, all the game planning and counter-strategy, the need to slow down Matt Ryan and the NFL’s top-scoring offense, it was a wrestling takedown on a punt return by a backup linebacker that decisively ended this Seahawks’ season.
The Seahawks started quickly, as they had to. They led 7-0 and 10-7. Then early in the second quarter Kevin Pierre-Louis got stood up by Atlanta’s LaRoy Reynolds just off the line of scrimmage as a Falcons punt was in the air. Pierre-Louis reacted by wrestling Reynolds to the turf, hoping to get away with the retaliation. The official saw it, and flagged it.
The play continued with Devin Hester catching the punt near his own 15. The 34-year-old former Falcon signed this month as Tyler Lockett’s injury fill-in spun away from the first tackler, then raced around everyone all the way to Atlanta 7-yard line. But the foul on Pierre-Louis for holding meant Seattle started the drive at its own 7 instead.
"That," dead-on Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls said, "was a vital part of the game."
It was an 86-yard penalty. Teams survive those even less often than those happen.
Seattle’s huge a chance to take a 17-7 lead in the second quarter was gone.
"Crazy situation," quarterback Russell Wilson said.
It got worse. Replacement right guard Rees Odhiambo then stepped on Wilson’s foot after a snap, sending the quarterback to the ground in the end zone. He was touched down there for an Atlanta safety.
"Fluke play," Wilson said.
By the time Ryan and the Falcons stopped rolling to 19 unanswered points, they had a 26-10 lead one drive into the third quarter.
The Seahawks never had a realistic chance after that.
"It was, unfortunately, where it hinged there," Carroll said.
"I felt like that was the time to take command of the game and go (up) 17-7 and make them have to fight their way. But the way they answered the next couple drives was the turning point.
"We had our shot. And we made a mistake."
The Seahawks (11-6) are going home after their third NFC West title in four seasons, but little else. Their loss Saturday — and entire, inconsistent season — may have them reevaluating their blueprint to building themselves.
Starting with their offensive line.
Seattle’s season-long issue of poor blocking by the league’s lowest-paid and inexperienced line proved fatal, as much as it appeared all regular season it would. Seattle at times whiffed and blocked no one on running plays, ruining what had been a fast start by Rawls. Rawls followed his Seahawks playoff-record 161 yards rushing in the wild-card round against Detroit with just 34 yards on 11 carries.
Seattle had 49 yards rushing on its opening, 14-play, 89-yard drive to the game’s first score. Wilson threw 7 yards to Jimmy Graham for the touchdown. The 8 1/2-minute drive signaled the Seahawks a reversal in their first-half woes of their previous three road games in the divisional playoffs.
But they gained just 22 yards on the ground from after that first drive into the fourth quarter, when it was frantic-comeback time. They managed just two field goals in that span, while the Falcons scored on five of their first six possessions to take command.
Another place the Seahawks may look hard this offseason: defensive strategy.
Richard Sherman versus Atlanta’s Julio Jones wasn’t the decisive showdown for Seattle’s defense. The All-Pro wide receiver the past two seasons had three catches for 32 yards on four targets for three first downs against the Seahawks’ three-time All-Pro cornerback. Sherman also got called for holding Jones, for a fourth Falcons’ first down against him. But Sherman did not spend the majority of the day man-up on Jones.
What was decisive was how the Seahawks did — more often did not — pressure Ryan’s throwing. To blitz or not to blitz became not a question but conundrum for defensive coordinator Kris Richard.
The Seahawks’ defense did not generate much consistently against Ryan with four down linemen, not enough to impact affect the game as it needed to. When Seattle tried to blitz, Ryan beat it was short throws and long runs by backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Those two combined for seven catches, 102 yards and a touchdown.
When Seattle was down 26-13 late in the third quarter and Atlanta had third and 4, the Seahawks blitzed their linebackers. They sent Pro Bowl defensive end Cliff Avril into zone-blitz coverage on Freeman. Freeman sped past Avril for a 53-yard catch and run. That set up Atlanta’s field goal and restored its 16-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Wilson tried to rally the Seahawks from way back in the final period, as he did on Jan. 13, 2013, coming back from 20 points down into the lead in those divisional playoffs here. His scramble-and-pass to Doug Baldwin got Seattle to the Atlanta 30 with 9 minutes left. But on third down after a sack, Wilson threw deep in near desperation while getting nailed.
His pass was far beyond rookie running back Alex Collins down the field, and Falcons safety Ricardo Allen intercepted it. His return to the Seahawks 46 with 8 minutes left ended Seattle’s last, faint hope.
Ryan’s perfect touchdown pass on the ensuing drive to Mohamed Sanu, leaping over Seahawk Jeremy Lane in the end zone, ended the game.
Hester’s 78-yard return of the following kickoff from 9 yards deep in the end zone set up Wilson’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin on the next play. But that was a merely cosmetic score because the Falcons recovered Steven Hauschka’s last-gasp, onside kick.
Wilson finished his fifth season as the Seahawks’ franchise man by completing 16 of 26 passes for 209 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He was sacked three times; the Falcons hit him six other times. Wilson is now 8-4 in the postseason.
Ryan, who may win the league’s most valuable player award, finished 25 of 36 passing for 334 yards and three touchdowns. He improved to 2-4 in the playoffs, as Atlanta (12-5) advanced to next weekend’s NFC championship against the winner of Sunday’s other NFC divisional playoff, Green Bay at Dallas.
Carroll advanced to the 2017 season already.
"There is such a connection that these guys have, that it would be a shame to think that this is the end, this is over," the coach said. "This, to me, feels more like the beginning than anything else.
"It’s a very strong mentality. And I hope it’s one that our fans can feel and sense in our guys, because you’ve got a team that is coming back and raring to go again. It’s just really hard to think that it’s over. It’s just really hard to walk out of here right now, because we’ve been too connected…
"It feels like we should still be playing."
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle