Russell Wilson spent the majority of his rookie season bumping into and occasionally trampling history. But Sunday, he nearly stood it squarely on its head, leading the Seahawks back from a 20-point halftime deficit to an improbable 28-27 lead, only to watch Matt Bryant drill a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds left to win the game for Atlanta 30-28 at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons, the NFC’s No. 1 seed, will face the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in the NFC Championship game. The Seahawks would have played the 49ers for a third time this season if they had been able to stop two Matt Ryan completions in the game’s final 31 seconds that set up Bryant’s game-winning kick (the Seahawks would have also entered the game with the confidence of knowing they had wins over two of the final three teams left in the postseason).
But they could not, and Wilson and the Seahawks missed out on a chance of tying the long-forgotten 1957 Detroit Lions for the greatest comeback victory in NFL postseason history, 20 points. The Lions trailed the San Francisco 49ers 27-7 in the ’57 title game, but roared back to win 31-27.
The Seahawks, behind 20-0 at intermission, scored on their opening drive of the second half, cut the margin to 27-14, then 27-21 and finally took the lead at 30-28 when Marshawn Lynch scored — barely — on a one-yard run only because the ball crossed the plane prior to his fumble.
But Seattle couldn’t prevent Ryan, who threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns, from completing two huge throws — 22 yards to Harry Douglas and 19 yards to Tony Gonzalez — to put Bryant in a position for the winning kick with 13 seconds left.
“They made the plays and we didn’t,” said Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner. “What hurts is that we were 30 seconds away from the NFC Championship game. We’ll just try to get better for next year. The sky is the limit with what we did with a rookie quarterback and a lot of young guys. I think we’ve got a good future.”
“We left too much stuff out there,” added WR Doug Baldwin. “We didn’t make the plays we needed to make in order to win. “You can’t come out and start a game like that the way we did and expect to win.”
A Seattle statue to Wilson would have been erected by Monday if the Seahawks could have prevented those last-minute Ryan completions. Wilson threw for a Seattle franchise playoff record 385 yards, tossed touchdown passes of 29 yards to Golden Tate and three yards to Zach Miller, led the Seahawks in rushing with 60 yards and a touchdown, and finished with a 109.1 passer rating. Almost all of that came in the second half.
Too bad for Wilson that he had to work his way out of such a hole. That he nearly did spoke volumes in other ways. With a win, Seattle would have joined the 2007 Giants as the only No. 5 seeds to upset a No. 1 seed, and would have also joined the 1989 Rams as the only West Coast teams to win in back-to-back weeks in the postseason on the East Coast.
But the Seahawks, with a body-clock start time of 10 a.m., checked in at the Georgia Dome completely out of sorts, and paid for it. For most of the first two quarters, Atlanta steamrolled Seattle with a running game ranked 29th in the NFL. At the same time, the Falcons bottled up Seattle’s vaunted running game with a run defense ranked only 21st. At one point in the first half, the Falcons had double the number of rushing yards as the Seahawks, which no forecaster could have imagined.
Even with Seattle waking up after halftime, the Falcons outrushed the Seahawks 167 yards to 123, especially doing a number on Lynch, holding him to 46 yards on 16 carries. Seattle had particular trouble with Michael Turner, who finished with 98 yards on 14 carries.
Other than Wilson, Seattle’s top offensive player was Miller. Wilson targeted him nine times and he caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown, just one yard shy of matching Darrell Jackson’s playoff record against the Washington Redskins in 2005.
Seattle outgained Atlanta 491 yards to 417, but failed to apply any pressure on Ryan, who converted six of 11 third-down plays. Without DE Chris Clemons, who had 11.5 sacks during the regular season, was was injured against Washington last week, the Seahawks didn’t sack Ryan once or even get close. Bruce Irvin, who replaced Clemons, was a non-factor.
Atlanta marched resolutely to its first score, a 39-yard field goal by Bryant. During the drive, Turner ripped off a 15-yard run, Jacquizz Rodgers got loose for nine, and Gonzalez converted a third down with a nine-yard catch. Richard Sherman twice came up big in pass coverage, including swatting away a potential TD pass from Ryan to Roddy White in the end zone.
The Seahawks went 3-and-out on their first drive and gave Atlanta excellent field position at the 50 on a poor, 30-yard punt by Jon Ryan. But Bobby Wagner stepped in with his third interception of the season.
After a 17-yard scramble by Wilson, Lynch killed what had been shaping up as a nice drive when he fumbled for the second time in two games, setting up Atlanta for its second score, a one-yard TD from Ryan to Gonzalez and a 10-0 lead. Wagner unwittingly aided Atlanta when he committed a 15-yard horse collar penalty, and then Ryan and White teamed up on a 16-yard completion to set up the touchdown.
On the last play of the first quarter, Rodgers had a career-best, 45-yard, Lynch-type run for a first down at the Seattle 39. Four plays later, Bryant kicked his second field goal for a 13-0 lead.
The Seahawks finally came to life midway through the second quarter after a 44-yard completion from Wilson to Miller. But after reaching the red zone, the Seahawks failed on third and 1 (Robert Turbin) and fourth and 1 (Michael Robinson) and came away with nothing.
Turner immediately ripped off a huge run to midfield, and then Ryan blew the Seahawks’ doors off with a 47-yard touchdown pass to White over the top of Sherman for a 20-0 lead.
The Seahawks began to make a game of it when they took the opening drive of the second half and went 80 yards in nine plays for a touchdown, Wilson throwing 29 yards to Tate to cut Atlanta’s lead to 20-7.
But Ryan immediately marched the Falcons on a matching, 80-yard drive, Jason Snelling’s five yard, shovel-pass TD catch from Ryan making it 26-7.
Wilson answered with his second 80-yard drive by scoring on a one-yard run to shave the lead to 27-14 with 13:06 left in the fourth quarter.
With 13:09 left, Ryan threw an ill-advised ball that Earl Thomas picked off, setting up the Seahawks. Wilson connected with Sidney Rice on a 24-yard reception and then threw a little dump off pass that Turbin took to the five-yard line. Wilson’s three-yard TD to Miller made it 27-20.
With 3:00 to play, Wilson escaped what seemed to be a sure sack and threw a checkdown to Lynch, who took it to the four-yard line. Lynch tallied the go-ahead TD for a 28-27 Seattle lead with 34 seconds left. But that was all the time Ryan needed to set up Bryant for the winning field goal.