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Originally published January 13, 2013 at 5:31 PM | Page modified January 14, 2013 at 10:52 PM

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Heartbreaking loss means Seahawks season ends too early

The Seahawks went out in typical fashion Sunday — in a thrilling, heart-stopping loss to the Falcons that will leave fans pondering a lot of "what-ifs."

Seattle Times staff columnist

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ATLANTA — The Seahawks don't just play football games. They act out "Rocky" movies, with pigskin instead of boxing gloves.

Opponents can't just beat them. They have to endure them, too. With epic game after epic game, the Seahawks left you fidgeting the entire season. Fittingly, on Sunday, they went out as only they could — with delirious disappointment. In the most tormenting, exhilarating and ultimately heartbreaking game of the season, Atlanta survived the Seahawks in an NFC divisional playoff game. The Falcons needed every second of a wild fourth quarter to withstand a ferocious Seattle comeback and then post their own rally in a 30-28 victory at the Georgia Dome.

It possessed all the traits of a classic game: dramatic momentum shifts, incredible individual efforts, clutch performances and, yes, dreadful decision-making that can inspire an offseason full of second-guessing and "What if?" pondering.

"Emotionally, it was just up and down," said Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer who won the first playoff game of his 16-year career. "I'm spent right now. I'm so happy we were able to pull it out."

Said Seahawks defensive tackle Alan Branch: "You lose like that, it definitely hurts."

The Seahawks lost at the end because their celebrated defense couldn't hold a one-point lead with 31 seconds remaining. They lost at the beginning because they could neither tackle the Falcons' running backs nor stop their receivers from making big plays as Atlanta built a 20-0 halftime lead. And they lost in the middle because they failed to make use of three prime scoring opportunities in the first half.

You'll remember those three blunders the most.

Marshawn Lynch made the first mistake in the first quarter, losing a fumble at the Atlanta 39-yard line after an 11-yard run, his longest of a subpar game.

Then, on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter, the Seahawks drove within 11 yards of the end zone and came away with no points. Instead of taking a field goal, the Seahawks were stopped on a fourth-and-1 play in which fullback Michael Robinson received the carry rather than Lynch.

Later, the Seahawks, who had no timeouts remaining, let the clock expire at the end of the first half after quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked. They had no time to kick a field goal, and Wilson tried unsuccessfully to hurry his team to line up for a last-second heave to the end zone on fourth down. It was a horribly appropriate ending to a disastrous first half.

So, the Seahawks saw a promising drive end with Lynch's fumble. Then, they missed out on at least two easy field goals because of either poor decision making or poor clock management. It turns out they could've lived with one of those mistakes and still won the game. But both of them? Too costly.

It's the fourth-and-1 play that stings the most. It stings because they were down 13-0 at the time and simply needed to get on the scoreboard with a field goal. It stings because the Seahawks had been efficient on fourth down all season, converting 12 of 20 tries (60 percent) entering the game, including a perfect 5 of 5 on fourth-and-2 or shorter. And it stings because they didn't give the ball to Lynch, their best player, on a most critical play.

In a vacuum, was it an awful decision? No. But the way the game was going, the Seahawks needed that field goal to settle down. There was plenty of time, as we learned, to go for touchdowns later.

Not surprisingly, coach Pete Carroll doesn't have any regrets, however.

"No, not really, I don't look at it that way," he said. "But you can. You can look at it any way you want, but we had a chance. You have to make the 6 inches or whatever it was. We thought we could knock it out."

Here's the thing about the Seahawks, though: Despite their blunders, despite a run defense that allowed 167 rushing yards to a poor running team, despite trailing 27-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, they refused to break. And they nearly pulled off their greatest comeback victory ever.

Wilson led them, throwing for 385 yards (an NFL postseason record for a rookie quarterback) and two touchdowns. Tight end Zach Miller, who had eight receptions for 142 yards, caught a touchdown pass during the rally. Lynch, who was held to 46 rushing yards, still did his part, plunging into the end zone from two yards out as the Seahawks took a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left. Their fight was remarkable.

"We're going to fight you until the end," linebacker Leroy Hill said. "Until the last second, we're fighting."

So was Atlanta, though. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw a 22-yard pass to Harry Douglas to start the drive, then he hit Gonzalez for 19 yards to put the Falcons in field-goal range. And Matt Bryant made the pressure kick, a 49-yarder with eight seconds left that turned a heckuva comeback into a heckuva learning lesson.

"Hopefully, it'll make us tougher," defensive end Red Bryant said. "Hopefully, it'll make us hungrier."

The Seahawks will be better for this agony. But a splendid season of growth ends prematurely, after a game in which hearts beat drum solos and oversized men strained to give their max and victory appeared almost indistinguishable from defeat.

So close. So heartbreaking.

And, sadly, so long.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.

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