That one play might have swung the game so drastically for the Seahawks in a divisional playoff game at Atlanta was unmistakable.
Equally true, though, was that Seattle had enough flaws this season that once a big break was denied them, it was enough to also break them.
And after a chance to to up by 10 points was nullified due to a penalty on a second-quarter punt return, the Seahawks wilted, ultimately losing to Atlanta 36-20 at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
The loss ends Seattle’s season in the divisional playoff round for the second straight season and third in five years, with those eliminations sandwiching two Super Bowl appearances.
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But unlike other playoff losses in the Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks went relatively quietly against the Falcons, who outscored the Seahawks 36-13 after Seattle drove for a touchdown the first time it had the ball.
The game turned on a sequence in the first half that initially appeared to have Seattle ready to move ahead by two possessions, to suddenly playing from behind.
Leading 10-7, the Seahawks forced the only punt of the first half for the Falcons. Veteran Devin Hester, signed two weeks ago to replace the injured Tyler Lockett, took Matt Bosher’s 60-yard punt at the 13, made the first man miss with the help of some interference from Richard Sherman, and then raced down the left sideline to the Atlanta 7.
But the flag on the field loomed ominously throughout and after a lengthy delay, the call came: holding on backup linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who grabbed Atlanta backup linebacker LaRoy Reynolds at the line and threw him to the ground.
Since the penalty was during the kick, the entire return was nullified and the Seahawks had to start at their own 7, half the distance to the goal line.
After Thomas Rawls lost three yards on first down, quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back to pass from under center on second down. But as he did, he was stepped on by backup right guard Rees Odhiambo, who was in the game after Germain Ifedi suffered an ankle injury on the first drive.
That made it 10-9.
Atlanta drove for a field goal following the free kick to take its first lead at 12-10 with 6:06 to play in the first half.
The Falcons then forced a three-and-out, with Doug Baldwin being stopped a yard short on third down on a tackle by Atlanta’s Robert Alford.
Jon Ryan’s punt rolled dead at the 1, seemingly a break for the Seahawks.
But the Falcons then drove 99 yards in nine plays, the touchdown coming on a 14-yard pass from Ryan to Tevin Coleman to put the Falcons ahead 19-10 at halftime.
Ryan’s only misstep on the drive was a pass into the flat that DeShawn Shead just missed intercepting, which likely would have been returned for a touchdown for the Seahawks.
Atlanta then got the ball to start the third quarter and moved 75 yards in 13 plays, Devonta Freeman scoring from 1-yard out to give Atlanta a 26-10 lead with 9:12 to go in the third quarter, capping a run of 19 straight points.
Tempers flared as Freeman scored, with Seahawk Michael Bennett pointing a finger at Atlanta offensive tackle Jake Matthews. Matthews levied a cut block on Bennett in their October matchup – a 26-24 Seahawks comeback win – causing a knee injury that forced Bennett to have surgery and miss five games.
Bennett limped off with another knee injury a few plays before the touchdown before returning.
After the touchdown, Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard gathered the defense on the sideline and gave an impassioned talk.
A 53-yard pass to Freeman on third-and-four, when Ryan floated the ball over a blitzing Seahawks defense, set up an Atlanta field goal to make it 29-13.
On Seattle’s next possession, Wilson tried to run for it on third-and-15 but was hammered by Atlanta cornerback Brian Poole three yards shy of the first down.
On Seattle’s next drive, the Seahawks had a third-and-16 at the Atlanta 36 when Wilson scrambled and floated a ball over Alex Collins that was picked off by Atlanta’s Ricardo Allen and returned to the Seattle 49.
The Falcons drove easily for a touchdown to go ahead 36-13 with 3:21 let and that was pretty much that.
Another Hester return, this one of 78 yards, set up a 31-yard pass from Wilson to Baldwin that made the score look better.
Seattle’s last gasp might have come when Paul Richardson made an apparent catch good for 58 yards at the 22-yard line with the Seahawks trailing 36-20. But the catch was overturned on replay, with TV cameras catching Carroll giving a bemused look of resignation on the sideline as the announcement was made.
Three plays later, Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones was credited with an interception after Luke Willson lost control of a pass as he hit the ground, with the ball bouncing up and ultimately corralled by Jones with 2:15 remaining.
Mostly, though, the Seahawks’ weaknesses, both season-long and those they have incurred through injuries, were exposed.
The running game revival of last week was stopped dead against the Falcons.
And a Seattle secondary playing without free safety Earl Thomas looked nothing like the Legion of Boom of old – this was the third game in the last six in which the Seahawks allowed 34 or more points.
The loss could be viewed as the Seahawks continuing to trend downward, if incrementally, since winning the Super Bowl following the 2013 season.
But Seattle is positioned well to stay a contender with every primary starter this season under club contractual control for the 2017 season.
Changes, though, are sure to be in the offing, with the game showing that Seattle’s offensive line wasn’t good enough and that the team had little margin for error after the injury to Thomas.
©2017 The Seattle Times
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