ATLANTA — Despair was thick in the Seahawks locker room, profound as any I've seen in sports. Thirty minutes after the game, many players were in full uniform with towels over heads, staring into the floor as if solace might erupt from the concrete.
Richard Sherman, the verbose cornerback who is fated to die in mid-sentence, waved off reporters. Safety Earl Thomas shook his head no to questions. A third Seahawk All Pro selection, center Max Unger, almost got away before I stepped between him and the exit.
"I don't even want to think about this," he said. "It's a tough one to get over. It's going to take a long time."
Finally, tight end Zach Miller, buoyed by the individual game of his career (eight catches, 142 yards, one glorious touchdown), had the presence of mind to drill down past the anguish to the core of the ache.
"We wanted to win it," he said, "for him."
That would be Russell Wilson, the stumpy kid who is relentless as Puget Sound rain, only lots more fun. Wilson should have been celebrated as having led one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history, but instead will be a footnote — a bold-faced italic footnote, but a footnote — in the chronicle of the 2012 season as the Atlanta Falcons, who won 30-28, move on the NFC championship game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
Screaming back from a 20-0 halftime deficit for a 28-27 lead with 34 seconds left, Wilson left ashen the red-clad hordes in the Georgia Dome. But moments later, it was the Seahawks and a vocal knot of fans who were flabbergasted when the Seahawks foolishly played a soft zone defense that allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan two long completions that set up a game-winning, 39-yard field goal from Matt Bryant with eight seconds remaining.
The whipsaw brought a devastating end to a brilliant season that was within reach of the Super Bowl.
Wilson had a splendid second half, finishing with a club-playoff-record 385 yards, two passing TDs and one on the ground. Yet after the win, he was almost as remarkable with his response to defeat.
Instead of moping, Wilson simply refused to give in, demonstrating why the team has fallen for a rookie they all came to cherish.
"When the game was over, I was very disappointed, but when I got to the tunnel, walking off, I got so excited for the opportunity next year," he said. What? The kid just had a metaphorical arrow shot through his heart, and he already pulled it out.
"I told (QB position coach Carl Smith) afterward, 'I'm so excited. I can't wait to get to the off-season and work and work and work . . . to get to the next season and play.' "
That's why he is the leader and the rest of his world follows, happily. Some people will not believe that's how his mind works, but some people could not lead, in their first year on the job, drives of 80, 80, 62 and 61 yards in the final half on the road in an NFL playoff game against the conference's top-seeded team.
Indefatigable. Resourceful. Visionary. Unflappable. Even the human adjective dictionary that is Pete Carroll cannot himself finish the description.
"There is no way I can describe (in 20 minutes) the amount of what he does," he said. "He’s just an amazing kid. It is so unheard of for rookies to do stuff like that. But he ain't a rookie. He is just good."
The best of many moments came inside the final minute, third-and-five at the Atlanta 27-yard line, trailing 27-21 and Falcons fans coughing up lungs for a defensive stop. Wilson, out of the shotgun, looked deep for a moment and then was nearly sacked before pivoting away, Bugs Bunny style, as Seahawks fans have learned to expect. He checked down to Marshawn Lynch, waiting patiently along the sideline, who caught the short throw and turned it into first-and-goal at the Atlanta 3.
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