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Cigar Thoughts, Divisional Round: Falcons outplay, outlast Seahawks with 36-20 win

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A fast start from both teams turned into a one-sided affair, as the Falcons sent the Seahawks packing with a 16-point loss.

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Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

It’s a different world we live in now. A decade ago, Seahawks fans would’ve killed for a 10-win season that included a division championship and a playoff win. A decade ago, saying goodbye to our favorite team in the middle of January would be a fond farewell, a regional gratitude for a season that gave Seattle national relevance before graciously bowing out shortly before the Super Bowl. It would be a cause for optimism.

We don’t live in that reality anymore. It’s a blessing most days, cheering for a team that will be competitive in nearly every game, our reflection of their performance graded in the scathing light of Super Bowl expectations. ‘Tis better to expect greatness than to hope it shows up, but the trade-off is a heavier sense of disappointment when it doesn’t.

Among the things I’ve learned as a realtor (holla atcha boy- we will hustle our asses off for you) were the myriad types of loans one can receive for a property. Most of them simply amortize over time and, barring a major life event, continue down a predictable path for decades. That’s how the vast majority of this franchise’s seasons have gone- year after year of varying degrees of mediocrity, rarely registering so much as a blip on the NFL’s historical radar. Do enough to keep enough fans interested so that you don’t have to foreclose on the team. That all started to change when Pete Carroll and John Schneider showed up, and it accelerated when they drafted Russell Wilson.

Now the Seahawks’ enter every season staring down an inflated balloon mortgage, paying nothing but interest against outsized expectations all season long, with the significant balance called to account at the end of the term. This year, the Seahawks managed to hold off the collection agency for 18 games, paying just enough to keep them alive but ultimately unable to satisfy the debt to their fans that they created when they appeared in consecutive Super Bowls.

It’s uncomfortable territory, feeling let down by any season that doesn’t end in a ring. Kinda silly, when you step back and look at it, if one is capable of such a thing. Here we are, rooting for a team that is year-in, year-out a threat to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, a squad loaded with some of the most supreme talent ever fielded by a Seattle sports team, and yet the chances are overwhelming that we walk away from the season feeling unfulfilled. But I’ll say this: it sure as hell beats the alternative.

I actually felt pretty good about the Seahawks’ chances coming into this game, a feeling buoyed immensely by Seattle’s opening drive. On that initial possession, the ‘Hawks ran the ball a whopping 10 times for 49 yards, and Wilson completed all four of his passes for 40 yards and a touchdown to Jimmy Graham. It was the perfect Seattle drive, eating up eight and a half minutes and culminating in a red zone TD to the team’s most unguardable player. The only downside to an otherwise perfect possession was an injury to Germain Ifedi.

It looked like the Seahawks were well prepared for this challenge and their opening salvo couldn’t have been any better if you had scripted it yourself. After a season snake-bitten by slow starts, Seattle came out swinging and landed every single punch they threw. Then the rest of the game happened. That’s thing about football games- they’re 60 minutes long, and 60 minutes is usually enough time for the better football team to establish themselves. In this case, it was more than enough.

Seattle’s sensational start was short-lived, as the Falcons would go on to score 36 of the next 42 points. It started with the very next drive, as Atlanta retaliated with a 13-play, 75-yard TD possession of their own in which Matt Ryan looked every bit the MVP candidate he is. Julio Jones was deadly, deftly cutting off routes mid-step to create enough separation for three catches on the first drive alone. He ended Atlanta’s counter-punching spree with a short touchdown on a WR screen.

The Seahawks would answer back with another impressive drive, but were unable to get a second TD when Wilson’s 3rd down pass sailed over Doug Baldwin’s inside shoulder in the endzone when an outside shoulder throw would’ve been a teeder. Steven Hauschka would bang the field goal through to give Seattle the lead and, after a defensive stop, the ball back. On the ensuing Atlanta punt, Devin Hester uncorked an electric return that gave Seattle the ball on the Falcons’ 7-yard line.

It was a wonderful effort by the Seahawks special teams and was the sort of field-flipping play that’s been missing all season. It put the ‘Hawks in great position to extend their lead to 17-7 and put them in control of the game’s final 40 minutes. It was all for naught, however, as Kevin Pierre-Louis got tangled up with an Atlanta blocker and was flagged for I dunno, playing football, I guess? The dubious* penalty not only negated the massive return, it pinned the Seahawks inside their own 10-yard line and ultimately led to disaster.

*horse-shit

With Ifedi still out, rookie Rees Odhiambo was called upon to play left guard. On 2nd & whatever from the 4-yard line, Wilson dropped back from under center. Or, rather, he tried to. Odhiambo somehow managed to step on Wilson’s foot at the snap, causing Seattle’s QB to fall on his back in the endzone, turtling up in the painted to turf and accepting the safety as the best possible outcome of that disastrous misstep. At that point, the Seahawks still technically had the lead but the dominoes of defeat had already begun to fall.

From that point on, it was clear and decisive domination from a Falcons team that flat outplayed the Seahawks. In the past, Atlanta has gained a reputation for a fast-starting team that lacked the toughness, discipline, and overall talent to sustain a postseason run. This Falcons team is none of that. Their record-threatening offense lived up to full billing this afternoon, with Matt Ryan shredding a Seahawks secondary that never stood a chance.

Not having Earl Thomas was some of it, but honestly, the credit today belonged to the studs in black and red. Their very good offensive line gave Ryan time on almost every dropback and it didn’t really matter on the few times they didn’t. Even when under pressure, Ryan calmly threw the ball before his receivers had even broken out of their routes, his passes landing softy in their arms the moment they turned their heads back to look for it. Even when Seattle played excellent coverage, the football found the teacup-sized window necessary to result in a completion. Ryan would throw for 190 yards in the first half (the most ever allowed by the Seahawks in the first two quarters of a game in the Carroll era) and did so without even having the courtesy to score quickly.

Clock-draining drive after clock-draining drive effectively shortened this game, making Seattle’s steadily decreasing deficit harder and harder to overcome. From the middle of the second quarter on, it felt as though Seattle’s margin for error zero and getting worse. The Seahawks offense never found a rhythm after those first two drives, largely because they never really had a chance to. The Falcons held the ball for a staggering 33 of the game’s final 51 minutes, squeezing Seattle’s opportunities until they passed out.

Russell Wilson started out 8 for 9 for 80 yards and a touchdown but would complete just 9 of his last 21 throws for 145 yards, a TD, and two INTs. Thomas Rawls, who blazed out of the gates on the heels of his incredible performance last week, was stymied the rest of the game, as down, distance, and score forced Seattle into predictable passing situations. All the while, Atlanta’s offense steadily beat the drum, racking up a spine-collapsing 28 first downs as they mercilessly watched the clock bleed out on Seattle’s season. Ryan would finish with 338 yards and 3 TDs on 26 of 37 passing, a virtuoso performance that any defense would have struggled to stop. It didn’t help that Seattle would end up without an interception for the franchise-record sixth straight game, a streak coinciding with Thomas’ injury.

To put it simply, the Falcons were a better team than the Seahawks today. Sometimes it happens and when it does in the playoffs, there’s no “next week” with which to bounce back. Make no mistake, this is a game that Seattle could have won, but against a team playing as well as Atlanta is, there’s just so little wiggle room for mistakes.

So what does this mean? Well, in the immediate future it means the gloomy proposition of joining the black parade of NFL fans reduced to watching other teams compete for the ‘ship. It means the painful process of coming to grips with the outcome of a season that won’t end with the exuberance that follows a Super Bowl win. It means watching someone else hoist the trophy in early February while masochistically comparing Seattle’s shortcomings to the strengths of the ultimate victor.

But beyond that, over that dim hill in front of us, the future remains remarkably bright. For many of us, that’s hard to imagine. All we see is the dark, steep embankment in front of us, its lofty footholds currently unreachable by our favorite team. In time, however, this team will be marching towards the crest of a new mountain, and will do so more equipped for the challenge than almost any other roster in the NFL.

For starters, the Seahawks still have Russell Wilson, an all pro talent at sport’s most important position. A signal-caller with a historic rate of early-career success, both statistically and in terms of winning, who is still entering the prime of an amazing career. It also stands to reason that he won’t play all of next season with two broken legs and a busted chest. The vast majority of Seattle’s top-tier talent is still under contract and, with next year’s salary bump they should have enough room to extend Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor, and Justin Britt, sign all their draft picks, and have enough left over to pursue a top free agent or two.

The offensive line remains a gigantic challenge and while it’s impossible to say if or how it will get better, it certainly can’t get any worse. The defense wasn’t the universe-collapsing force it was a couple years ago but that’s how it goes with every era-defining unit. The NFL is made up of some of the smartest and most athletic people in the world- a hard-charging peloton that spend thousands upon thousands of hours narrowing the gap on any team or scheme that pulls away from the pack. And yet Seattle still allowed fewer points than 29 of 31 other teams, nearly led the NFL in sacks, and were in the conversation for the best defense in the league again before their all-world free safety broke his leg. And that dude will be back next year too!

For many teams, making it this far carries with it an extreme sense of urgency. For most, their opportunity to cash in on being one of the league’s best teams is closing fast, whether it be due to age, salary, or any number of other issues that so consistently knock teams off their pedestals. Hell, look at last year’s Super Bowl teams. Neither of them even sniffed the playoffs this year.

The Seattle Seahawks outlasted 24 of the NFL’s 32 teams this season, tying the worst outcome of Russell Wilson’s career. They still boast as much elite individual talent as (or more than) any team in the league. They’re still young, and will bring back starting units with as much year-to-year continuity as you could ever hope for. The offseason will be long, and there are substantial issues for them to address, but we can take solace in the fact that when the 2017 season starts, Seattle will be on the short list of Super Bowl contenders once again.

Finally, it has been my absolute pleasure to write for you guys again this year and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to brain-vomit on your screens every weekend. As much as today’s outcome sucks, we are a blessed group to be able to cheer for the Seattle Seahawks. Someday there will be no more Pete Carroll, no more Russell Wilson, no more Legion of Boom. In those cold, misty days in the undefinable future, we will long for the opportunity to cheer a massive Kam Chancellor hit, marvel at a Tyler Lockett kickoff return, laugh at Michael Bennett’s postgame quotes, and bask in the glow of playoff runs. For now though, I’m thrilled to be sharing this gilded era with you all.

Until next year, my friends- onward, upward, and go ‘Hawks!

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