RENTON, Wash. — There have been certain games during his coaching career where the disappointment has lingered for Pete Carroll.
A certain national championship game where Vince Young tormented Carroll’s USC squad came to mind. So did a losing trip with the Trojans to Oregon State one season.
And, most relevant to Carroll’s current situation with the Seattle Seahawks, last January’s NFC divisional playoff loss at Atlanta where his team rallied from a 20-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter only to give up the lead in the final 30 seconds and have the season end in a 30-28 loss.
“I’ve always had certain games that I don’t want to forget because they kind of keep me going and this was one of them. I have a lot of those unfortunately,” Carroll said. “We let a game get away that we regret tremendously.”
Seattle returns to Atlanta this week with the lingering disappointment of what happened against the Falcons still fresh even 10 months later. The Seahawks trailed 20-0 in the first half and 27-7 heading to the fourth quarter before staging a memorable comeback led by quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson was 8 of 13 for 120 yards, one touchdown passing and a touchdown rushing in the fourth quarter. He found tight end Zach Miller on a 3-yard TD pass with 9:13 left, and led the Seahawks on a 61-yard drive that was capped by Marshawn Lynch’s 2-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds left that gave Seattle a 28-27 lead.
That was all that separated the Seahawks from a trip to the NFC championship game. And it’s what transpired in those 31 seconds that has lingered.
“Anytime this season, personally, when I felt like I needed a recharge or I wasn’t feeling like I need to get up, I think about the feeling after that game leaving,” Seattle safety Earl Thomas said. “We were so close, we had fought back so hard and you never want to feel like that again. So I’ve been using that all year long and it’s going to be great for us to get back in that same environment, same locker room. I hope they put me in the same locker.”
Starting at their own 28, the Falcons hit passes of 22 yards to Harry Douglas and 19 yards to Tony Gonzalez to get into field goal range. Matt Bryant then provided the final crushing blow by hitting a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds left.
“Just how tough they are. That’s probably the biggest thing that stood out from that game,” Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said. “They got down early. They battled, they hung in there and they played a 60-minute game. I think collectively that’s probably the biggest thing that we remember is that it was a tough, physical football game. We came out on top, which was great, but we know they’re a good football team.”
Thomas said he was as emotional as he’s ever been after that loss.
“That’s the most hurt I’ve been since I’ve been playing football. I haven’t cried after a game since my senior year of high school maybe and after that game I bawled,” Thomas said. “I was hurt. I was drained. You just never want to feel like that again.”
The Seahawks defense still laments the fact it couldn’t make plays to keep the Falcons out of field goal range in the closing seconds. It bothers the secondary specifically that they played zone defense rather than man-to-man on the final two plays where the Falcons hit a pair of long completions.
The failure in the final seconds in Atlanta was part of a larger problem where four times total during the 2012 regular season and postseason the Seahawks lost a lead late in the fourth quarter. And the lessons learned from those defeats appear to be taking hold this season.
In Carolina, the Seahawks forced a late turnover then watched their offense run out the clock in a 12-7 win. Seattle held Houston scoreless the entire second half and overtime in a Week 4 comeback at Houston. Two weeks ago, Seattle stopped St. Louis at the 1-yard line on the final play of the game for a 14-9 win. And last week, Tampa Bay was held out of Seahawks territory on its final five drives as Seattle rallied from a 21-point deficit to win in overtime.
“We let one get away in the postseason, but we’ve been great at that and so hopefully we can continue to find that and that’ll carry over when the time comes at the end of the year,” Carroll said.