ATLANTA—For the second time in five seasons, the Seahawks saw their season end at the Georgia Dome in a Divisional Round loss.
And for the second time in five seasons, the Seahawks leave Atlanta disappointed in the result, a 36-20 defeat, but also very optimistic about their future.
A younger, less experienced Seahawks team came back strong and won Super XLVIII following the previous loss in Atlanta, and while this team is considerably more experienced, players and head coach Pete Carroll agree that they should only come back a better team next year.
"We're right in the middle of it," Carroll said. "It isn't over, we're right in the middle of it. Everybody in that locker room knows that and they felt that and extend it by spreading their appreciation for one another. It didn't happen for this team. We're not as far as we wanted. We did some good stuff now, won a division and all that, but we're still in the process. That's what it feels like. We're in the middle of it, not at the end of anything."
Carroll went on to call this "a season of profound leadership in our locker room by our guys. It's not just the captains, it extends well beyond that. There's such a connection that these guys have that it would be a shame to think that this was the end and this is over. To me this feels more like the beginning than anything else. As we look down the road, we have such the right mentality that I can't wait to see what happens, I can't wait to see these guys come back ready to go again, the young guys getting a little bit older, the older guys getting a little bit better, and see where we are. There's nothing to stop us from continuing to think that way. These guys feel the same way."
The 2016 version of the Seahawks struggled to find a consistent version of their best selves for, as Carroll put it, "millions of reasons." Many of those reasons were injury related—the Seahawks missed Thomas Rawls, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett, Tyler Lockett and C.J. Prosise for significant portions of the season, and Russell Wilson was limited by multiple injuries for much of first half of the year—others had to do with inconsistencies on both sides of the ball at various points of the 2016 campaign. But while this season had more ups and downs than the Seahawks would have liked, they still won the NFC West for the third time in four years, had a double-digit win total for a fifth straight season, and advanced to the Divisional Round of the postseason for a fifth straight year as well. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, however, that resilience they had shown all season wasn't quite enough to overcome a great performance by the Falcons and their All-Pro quarterback Matt Ryan.
"I love the way this team fought all season, I love the way they battled," Carroll said. "We had trouble getting over the hump for millions of reasons, we really couldn't capture it the way we wanted to, but we kept fighting and clawing and scratching and gave ourselves a chance to be here, gave ourselves a chance to win this football game today. But Atlanta won today, they played a very good football game. I was really impressed all the way around… They got the game that they deserved, quite honestly."
The Seahawks opened Saturday's game with one of their most impressive drives of the season, a balanced 14-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock. After a field goal on their next drive gave the Seahawks a 10-7 lead, they managed only one field goal over their next seven possessions before Doug Baldwin caught a touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. That type of performance—explosive and efficient at times, struggling at other times—was "the story of our season," Baldwin said. "We haven't been able to be consistent, drive in and drive out."
But while Baldwin, who matched a franchise record with 94 receptions and had a career-high 1,128 receiving yards this season, was disappointed like everyone else in Seattle's locker room, he too sees more big things in the future.
"It has been a long season, a difficult season," Baldwin said. "We had our ups and downs. We're thankful to have gotten to this point, but we're obviously disappointed we're not playing next week.
"Jermaine (Kearse) and I were just talking about it, I'm ready to start training right now for next season. I think we have all the pieces, we have all the tools. We were missing some guys, health-wise, we were kind of finding ourselves up front on the offensive line because we were young. We've got some years under our belt now, so hopefully we can put it all together."
Added defensive end Cliff Avril, who earned Pro-Bowl honors for the first time in his career after recording 11.5 sacks in the regular season, "We have a great team. It's unfortunate the way the season ended, but we have the right guys, we have the right personnel. Continue to keep getting better, and that's all we can do. The future is bright for us as long as we do that."
Quarterback Russell Wilson, who after the 2012 postseason loss in Atlanta was already looking ahead to the next season as he walked off the field, said he had a similar feeling following Saturday's loss, and said he's "even more hungry" heading into this offseason than he was four years ago.
"I believe in what we're doing, I believe in our teammates and coaches and all that," Wilson said. "The exciting part is we get to go back to work this offseason and see how good we can really become—individually, as a team, as a group, as a unit. We're sticking together and we're believing in that.
"I'm probably even more hungry. You love the game so much, you know what it takes, you're passionate about your job, you're passionate about the early mornings, you're passionate about the late nights, you're passionate about the offseason and doing everything you can to be committed to be great, so we're a little disappointed obviously to not have won tonight but the good thing is you still have all the fire and passion and love for the game. So I'm looking forward to what's ahead. I think the best is ahead… I think about what's ahead. I believe there's a lot of greatness ahead, I believe there's a lot of wins ahead and I believe there's a lot of championships ahead."
The Seahawks can feel good about their future, even after a disappointing end to their season, because they have a roster full of talented players still in their prime, almost all of whom are under contract next year and beyond, and because they have a coaching staff that has proven it has what it takes to win a lot of games. But there's more to it than just talent and Xs and Ox, Carroll said.
"It's the mentality of the players, they get it," Carroll said. "They really appreciate one another, they care for one another, they know that these guys can ball and they like playing with them. It's the direction of the leadership from Kam (Chancellor) and from Bobby (Wagner) and K.J. (Wright) and Michael (Bennett) and Russell and all those guys that do such a great job of continuing to look ahead and keep pushing to the future and what we can become, not about what was or what could have happened. They don't go that way. It's a very strong mentality and it's one that I hope our fans can sense and feel in our guys, because you've got a team that's coming back raring to go again.
"It's just really hard to think that it's over. It's really hard to walk out of here, because we've been too connected and too much a part of this opportunity. Even though we came up short today, it feels like we should be playing."
Action photos from the Seahawks Divisional playoff game vs the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.