Before he had even reached the locker room following one of the more heartbreaking losses in franchise history, Russell Wilson was already looking ahead, telling Seahawks coach Pete Carroll that he was "so excited for the next opportunity." So too were many of his Seahawks teammates who, though disappointed about what had just transpired at the Georgia Dome, were extremely optimistic about the team's future.
Four years since the Seahawks lost to the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, they'll be back in the same building in the same round of the postseason, which makes this a good time to revisit a game that, while disappointing at the time, turned out to be a seminal moment in the team's history.
A young team in its third season under Pete Carroll, the 2012 Seahawks finished the regular season on a tear to earn a Wild Card playoff berth, then after overcoming a 14-0 deficit to win at Washington, the Seahawks again found themselves in a big hole at Atlanta the following week. Trailing 20-0 at halftime and 27-7 after three quarters, the Seahawks mounted a huge comeback to take a one-point lead with 31 seconds left in the game, only to have the Falcons quickly move into field-goal range to secure a 30-28 victory.
It was a devastating way to end a season any way you look at it, but through the heartbreak, the Seahawks could also see a bright future. Wilson and the offense had finished the season on fire, and in both playoff games, as well as regular season wins against New England and Chicago, the rookie quarterback had shown a knack for bringing the team back from late-game deficits, and a defense led by young players like Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright led the NFL in scoring defense.
"That was a fantastic game," Carroll said this week. "We were down by a lot and came roaring back. (Wilson) put us back and the offense got us back in the lead, and it was a heartbreaking last 31 seconds. We're walking out of the tunnel on the way off the field, and he's already talking about next year and what we're going to be able to do and all that kind of stuff. It was a pretty clear indicator at that point, if nothing else had told us before then, that this guy really is looking to the future, always going and always believing that things are going to happen right and good and all of that. It was a pretty clear message."
When the Seahawks opened training camp the following summer, several players talked about the hunger they had because of the way the previous season had ended, and by the time the dust had settled six months later, the Seahawks were Super Bowl champs. It's impossible to know how the Seahawks' 2013 season would have turned out differently, if at all, had the Seahawks won in Atlanta that day, but looking back, players say that loss made them better going forward.
"It kind of woke us up and definitely made us hungry too, because when you feel like you have a great team and you felt like you should win it all and you lose, you have to sit there in the offseason and watch the other teams win, and it gives you that hunger to come in to the next season prepared," said Wagner, who was a rookie on that 2012 team. "And I think that's what happened. Everybody came back really hungry because we got a taste of the playoffs. Everybody was telling us about how guys don't go to the playoffs, some guys play 13, 14 years, without even sniffing the playoffs. Here we are in the playoffs our first year being in the league. We liked the taste of the playoffs and we wanted to get back."
In addition to helping motivate the Seahawks heading into what ended up being a title-winning season, that game in Atlanta, despite ending in a loss, also helped the Seahawks understand they could compete against anyone in the league. Because of the way the Seahawks finished the 2012 season, and because of all the young, up-and-coming talent on the roster, they came into the 2013 season as Super Bowl favorites. They handled those lofty expectations first and foremost because they were a talented, well-coached, well-constructed team, but also because, based off of their experiences late in the 2012 season, and in particular in the second half of a road playoff game against the NFC's No. 1 seed, they proved to themselves that they belonged among the NFL's elite.
"For me, I felt like our team didn't realize how good we were," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "We were kind of just going through the motions like everything was new to us. When we got there it kind of hit us in the face and we had to bounce back. Once we realized we're talented enough to do this, we came back in the game. Unfortunately it didn't end the way we wanted it to, but I think it gave us a lot of confidence realizing we can play with the best, because we were such a young team, we had a lot of young guys at important positons too. I think that confidence really gave us some strength and being able to come back the next year and do what we did.
"There was nothing we could do at that moment. Obviously we were devastated. But all eyes were on next year and what we could do during the offseason to get better, to get ready for the next season and make the best of it. (Wilson) was just saying what everyone was thinking."
Added Wright: "I said it then. We weren't quite ready then, but I knew once that moment happened that when we were in that situation again, we would be ready the following year. We weren't quite ready, but we knew Russell was going to grow, everybody was going to grow together, and we were going to find a way to get to the Super Bowl."
What happened after that game helped set up the most successful season in franchise history. A young, talented nucleus went into the offseason with not only a hunger to get back to the playoffs, but also a better understanding of what it takes to succeed once they got there.
"It helped us know what to do and what not to do in a playoff game," Chancellor said. "It helped us know what to do and not to do in critical situations. A lot of learning came from that game for a young group."
The Seahawks also saw in that 2012 season, and in particular in that game in Atlanta that they had to play without top defensive end Chris Clemons, that as good as they were on defense, they needed more pass rushers. Carroll stated in his year-end press conference that upgrading the pass rush was a priority—though as he noted this week, that's pretty much always a priority—then the Seahawks went out and signed Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, two of the top pass-rushers on the free-agent market, on consecutive days. The addition of those two players, along with the natural progression of a young team, were big reasons why the Seahawks were able to get over the hump the following season, as was, a lot of players believe, what they experienced in that loss to the Falcons.
On Saturday afternoon, the Seahawks will walk out of that tunnel and onto the Georgia Dome turf a much more experienced and accomplished team than the one that walked through it four years ago, a tunnel where a rookie quarterback once told his coach that big things were in the team's future.
"You can get down when you lose a game sometimes, that's the initial thought for most people," Wilson said. "For me, I was just thinking about the opportunity, what was next for our football team. I got a great sense of great things coming. That was kind of the thought process when I was coming out of the tunnel to go back to the locker room. I just believed we could go win the Super Bowl next year and find a way. With the players that we've had and the character of guys we've had for the past five years and the work ethic and conviction we play with week in and week out, it has been a great ride so far. We take one day at a time, we've always enjoyed every game, every process, every practice, every meeting. I think that's why we've been successful over the past five years."
Gearing up for our playoff game against the Falcons on Saturday, here's a look at our Divisional Round matchups through the years.