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ATLANTA —The Seahawks opened their Divisional Round playoff game at Atlanta with an impressive 14-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that took 8 minutes, 34 seconds off the clock. It was a perfect start for a team that last year fell behind 31-0 in a playoff loss at Carolina, and that in this same building four years ago trailed 20-0 at halftime in an eventual Divisional Round loss.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, as head coach Pete Carroll always says, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and the Falcons were able to get more done the rest of the way to a 36-20 victory that ended Seattle’s season in the Divisional Round of the playoffs for a second straight year.
Here are five rapid reactions to the Seahawks’ season-ending loss:
1. Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense were really good.
Yes, there are things the Seahawks will feel like they could have done better on defense, but sometimes you also have to give credit where credit is due, and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan showed Saturday why he is a leading candidate for the MVP award this year.
Ryan completed 26 for 37 passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, giving him a passer rating of 125.7. Most impressively, he led a nine-play, 99-yard touchdown drive late in the first half to give the Falcons a 9-point halftime lead. His play was also a big reason why the Falcons went 6 for 11 on third down, allowing them to put together three touchdown drives of 75 or more yards.
One big difference from the previous meeting between these two teams was that Ryan was able to get the ball out quicker and avoid the pass rush. In October, the Seahawks sacked Ryan four times and hit him 13 times, while this time around they had three sacks and eight quarterback hits. The Falcons also got a lot more production out of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman this time around, with those two combining for 204 total yards and a pair of scores.
2. Special teams penalties made a big difference.
After a relatively quiet Seahawks debut last week, return specialist Devin Hester showed there’s plenty left in those 34-year-old legs, but unfortunately for the Seahawks, two of his four best returns on Saturday were negated by penalties.
Most notably in what was one of the most significant momentum swings in the game, Hester returned a second-quarter punt 80 yards to the Atlanta 7-yard line, but had that huge play wiped out by a holding call on Kevin Pierre-Louis. So instead of starting inside Atlanta’s 7-yard line, Seattle opened the drive at its 7-yard line, an 86-yard swing, and two plays later Russell Wilson went down for a safety after having his foot stepped on. Instead of having a great chance at building on a 10-7 lead, the Seahawks gave up two points after that penalty, then the Falcons turned a short field after the ensuing free kick from the 20-yard line into a field goal.
3. Paul Richardson had a very impressive postseason.
One positive this postseason for the Seahawks was the play of Paul Richardson, who took on a bigger role at the end of the season following Tyler Lockett’s season-ending leg injury. Last week Richardson hauled in three very impressive catches, including a one-handed touchdown grab, for 48 yards, and this week he again was catching almost everything thrown his direction, finishing with four catches for a team-high 83 yards.
Injuries have limited Richardson since he came to Seattle as a second-round pick in 2014, but his play these past two weeks is an encouraging sign for the Seahawks offense going forward.
4. Devin Hester still looks like Devin Hester.
As mentioned above, some of Hester’s best work was negated by penalties, but even with an 80-yard punt taken away, Hester still did some very good things.
The NFL’s all-time leader in return touchdowns with 20, Hester nearly added to that total against one of his former teams, returning a fourth-quarter kickoff 78 yards to set up an eventual Doug Baldwin touchdown. He also had a 50-yard kick return in the second quarter, giving the offense a short field it turned into a field goal. Even with the 80-yard punt return taken away, Hester still had 194 yards, all on kickoff returns.
5. Injuries were costly.
Even at full strength, this version of the Falcons would have been a handful, but the Seahawks saw several key players go down with injuries during the game to only make things more challenging. Cornerback DeShawn Shead went out with a knee injury in the third quarter, and not long after that, defensive end Michael Bennett went down as well, though he was able to quickly return to the game.
On offense, the Seahawks lost right guard Germain Ifedi early to an ankle injury. He returned for one series, but was out after that for the remainder of the game. Rees Odhiambo, who primarily is a left-side-of-the-line player, played the rest of the game at right guard, and unfortunately was the one who stepped on Wilson’s foot, resulting in a second-quarter safety. The Seahawks also lost tight end Brandon Williams, a key special teams players, to a concussion.