A blowout could’ve been waiting for Hawks in San Francisco

January 16, 2013 

Still feeling the sting? Still inconsolable over how the Seattle Seahawks fell two points and 31 seconds short of completing the largest second-half comeback in NFL playoff history? Still need Mylanta to cope with the thought of Atlanta?

Get over it.

There are worse ways for a team to conclude a season than losing a thriller that begins as a blowout. One of them is losing a playoff game that begins as a blowout and, well, remains a blowout.

We’ll never know what kind of effort the Seahawks would’ve been capable of delivering Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, but it’s not difficult envisioning the 49ers coasting to the NFC championship they were denied a year ago.

I know, the Seahawks beat these guys silly on Dec. 23. The 49ers, who’d already clinched a playoff spot and were one win from wrapping up the NFC West Division, had little on the line at CenturyLink Field, and played as if nothing (nor anybody) was on the line. And while the Seahawks’ 42-13 victory was sweet, it set up a chance for San Francisco to exact revenge.

A Super Bowl berth ought to supply more than enough motivation in a conference-championship game, but there would’ve been payback for the embarrassment the 49ers suffered on national TV, and the payback figured to be substantial.

It’s natural to dwell on the soft, casually backpedaling Seattle defense that allowed the Falcons to advance the ball into field-goal range on two plays. The breakdown obscured how Atlanta – which has nothing close to the imposing running attack San Francisco does – dominated the Seahawks on the ground.

Michael Turner performed a bang-up impersonation of Marshawn Lynch, finishing with 98 yards. Turner’s backup, Jacquizz Rodgers, picked up 64. The Falcons’ 167 rushing yards were both a season high and a revelation for an offense more associated with finesse than power.

If Atlanta was able to pound the Seahawks for 167 rushing yards, how many yards does San Francisco gain against them with Frank Gore running behind two Pro Bowl starters (Joe Staley, Mike Iupati) and three Pro Bowl alternates (Jonathan Goodwin, Anthony Davis, Alex Boone)?

And then there is Colin Kaepernick. The second-year quarterback looked like an overwhelmed rookie at CenturyLink Field, where the crowd noise turned his every audible into a misadventure. No communication problems would’ve awaited Kaepernick in San Francisco.

Again, the divisional playoff in Atlanta provides a template for what we might have seen in the NFC Championship game: Without injured defensive end Chris Clemons, the Seahawks tried to pressure quarterback Matt Ryan with a variety of blitzes. Ryan was not sacked, and he was hurried only once or twice.

Kaepernick doesn’t read coverage patterns as expertly as Ryan, but the kid compensates for his inexperience by threatening to bolt any time he escapes the pocket. Saturday against the Packers, Kaepernick put on a show dazzling enough to qualify as legendary: He passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for 181 yards and another two touchdowns.

Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has emerged as a hot name to become a head coach somewhere, and the interest is warranted – he’s a good guy and a respected tactician, despite the late debacle Sunday – but the Seahawks’ loss was Bradley’s gain. He’s been able to interview for jobs without having to explain why his defense gave up a gazillion yards to the 49ers.

The mere presence of quarterback Russell Wilson probably would’ve prevented the Seahawks from enduring a thumping in San Francisco. Or maybe not. The Packers took to San Francisco the best quarterback in the business, Aaron Rodgers, and Green Bay still lost by two touchdowns.

Traumatic as the sudden playoff elimination in Atlanta was for the Seahawks, it left us with the sense the best is yet to come. Shore up the defensive line – I’m thinking here of a first-round draft pick more versatile than all-or-nothing pass rusher Bruce Irvin – acquire a deep-threat receiver and maybe some depth for the offensive line, and Seattle’s first Lombardi Trophy is there for the taking.

No wonder Wilson said his thoughts turned from the disappointment of 2012 to the anticipation of 2013 as soon as he walked into the tunnel toward the visitors’ locker room at the Georgia Dome.

But is he as fired up about the future if the Seahawks are humiliated in San Francisco? Is the 2013 season looming so hopeful if a division rival asserts itself as an NFC West dynasty?

Losing a playoff game in the last minute – OK, the last half-minute – is frustrating and agonizing. And yet the defeat in Atlanta spared the Seahawks and their fans from emotions more deflating than frustration and agony. The defeat prevented them from falling into a long depression that follows total humiliation.

Submitting to a 60-minute clock-cleaning in San Francisco would have been much worse. It would have defined awfulness. It would have gone on and on and on, sucking the last-gasp air from a terrific football season that found moderate hopes building into great expectations.

I point this out because, hey, sometimes you’ve just got to accentuate the positive.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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