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Originally published January 12, 2013 at 8:04 PM | Page modified January 13, 2013 at 1:51 PM

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Message to Seahawks fans: It's OK to dream big

Seattle has been conditioned to prepare for disappointment in these games but this pinch-yourself Seahawks run is different.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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ATLANTA — Dreaming usually isn't allowed in Seattle. A lot of sports fans in this town get suspicious when they start feeling optimistic, like they're waiting for the other shoe to fall.

There have been too many disappointments. Too many moments like Denver's Dikembe Mutombo flat on his back in the lane, raising the basketball toward the heavens in a silent Seattle Coliseum.

Too many heartbreaks like Al Harris blowing up Matt Hasselbeck's coin-flip prediction, intercepting a pass and streaking into the end zone in the Seahawks' sudden-death loss in the chaotic cold of Green Bay.

Seattle has been conditioned to lose these games.

The last three times the Seahawks have gotten to this conference semifinal weekend, they've lost. They've won only twice in this round.

Seattle teams, when they get to the playoffs, seem to drive us to the cliff, and then floor it like Thelma and Louise, sending the hopes of the season to a flaming grave.

But this pinch-yourself Seahawks run is different from just about every other season in any sport in Seattle's history. It's a playoff push that seemingly came out of nowhere. And this weekend it feels right to be optimistic.

Remember in September how impossible the playoffs seemed? The Hawks had lost games at Arizona and St. Louis. They couldn't score in the red zone. Their rookie quarterback was struggling with a restricted play book, and the seat under coach Pete Carroll was warming.

But that team has matured into this team. Every element of these young Seahawks has come together at just the right time. And it has come together quicker than just about anybody could have expected.

Many of us figured we'd have to wait a year or two for this team to arrive. Maybe this season the Seahawks could make it to wild-card weekend. Expecting anything more would have been a reach.

The city wasn't prepared for this, and that's what makes this lightning-in-a-bottle stretch run so remarkable.

When the Sonics won the 1979 NBA championship, they had prepped the city by taking the Washington Bullets to seven games in the '78 Finals.

Their expected return to the Finals in the mid-1990s with the George Karl/Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp team was postponed a couple of years by the shocking first-round losses to Denver in '94 and the Los Angeles Lakers in '95.

There was almost a sense of relief in town when they finally broke through and beat Utah in that classic seventh game at KeyArena. And then, of course, they met MJ and Chicago, and almost nobody expected them to beat the Bulls in 1996.

The 2001 Mariners won 116 games. Their long march to the playoffs seemed inexorable. The Seahawks' rise to this Elite Eight weekend has been meteoric.

Sure, there are huge obstacles facing the Hawks in this NFC Divisional playoff game at Atlanta. For the second week in a row they have to travel across the country, and this week the start time is 10 a.m. Pacific time. They will be fighting their circadian rhythms as well as the Falcons on Sunday.

And this week they will be without their best pass rusher, Chris Clemons, who tore up his knee on that poor excuse of a field at Fed Ex. Rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin is going to have to play more downs than he has ever played and will be expected to make more plays.

But the burden the Falcons carry into this game is heavier than the Seahawks'. They are fighting their reputation as January jokes. If the Hawks bust out to an early lead, the Georgia Dome could be as hushed as the gallery around the 18th green on Sunday at the Masters.

It isn't silly to think of the Hawks as the favorites in this game. Forget the chip on your shoulder. Get excited. Expect some magic.

We couldn't have said this in September, but the city of Seattle is expectant in a way it hasn't been since the 2005 Seahawks went to the Super Bowl.

This is the most surprising year we've had around here since the 1995 Mariners came from a double-digit deficit, caught the Angels, beat the Yankees and got to the American League Championship Series.

Edgar Martinez's series-winning double against New York still might be the single-most thrilling moment in Seattle sports, but we could be on the brink of another such moment. A Russell Wilson scramble. A Richard Sherman pick-six. A game-winning field goal from Ryan Longwell.

This weekend, anything and everything seems possible.

It's been a long time coming in Seattle. Go ahead and dream.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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