ATLANTA — It was agonizing.
Back and fourth
The fourth quarter was all Seahawks. Until the final 31 seconds.
Seattle: The quarter opened with the Seahawks trailing 27-7 but with the ball at the Falcons’ 13-yard line. Four plays later, Seattle scored on a 1-yard run by Russell Wilson to make it 27-14 with 13:01 to play.
Atlanta: On the fourth play of the Falcons’ next possession, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw a deep pass that was intercepted by Seattle’s Earl Thomas, giving the Seahawks the ball back with 11:03 to play.
Seattle: The Seahawks zipped 62 yards down the field in four plays, scoring on a 3-yard pass from Wilson to Zach Miller to cut the lead to 27-21 with 9:13 remaining.
Atlanta: The Falcons went three-and-out and had to punt, giving the Seahawks the ball back at their 40-yard line with 7:23 to go.
Seattle: After one first down, three straight incomplete passes forced the Seahawks to punt. John Ryan’s punt landed in the end zone — barely — giving the Falcons the ball at their 20 with 5:32 to play.
Atlanta: After one first down, the Seahawks forced another punt, getting the ball back at their 39-yard line with exactly three minutes to play.
Seattle: The Seahawks marched easily downfield, the big plays a 19-yard pass to Golden Tate and a 24-yard pass play when Wilson dumped the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, who took it to the 3-yard line. With 31 seconds to play, Lynch scored from 2 yards out, 28-27 Seahawks.
Atlanta: Ryan made two clutch passes — a 22-yard completion to Harry Douglas and a 19-yarder to Tony Gonzalez, moving the ball quickly from the Atlanta 28 to the Seattle 31. Falcons coach Mike Smith called a timeout with 13 seconds left — a move that almost cost him later. Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal to make it 30-28, Falcons.
Seattle: The Falcons squibbed the kickoff but didn’t get it as far downfield as they’d hoped, with the Seahawks recovering at their 46-yard line with eight seconds to play. Wilson completed a pass to Doug Baldwin but for only 6 yards before he was able to get out of bounds with two seconds left. A final Hail Mary was intercepted by Atlanta receiver Julio Jones in the end zone.
Then it was amazing.
And in the end, it was utterly excruciating for the Seahawks and the city behind them.
It was Atlanta 30, Seattle 28 at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons’ kicker making a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds left in a second-round playoff game that went from maddening to nearly miraculous to ultimately miserable for Seattle.
“Couldn’t finish it,” coach Pete Carroll said.
In some ways, it was amazing the Seahawks got that close, and in others it was a shame it had to come to that.
This was a game it was hard to see Seattle winning, given the chances it wasted in the first half and the defense it played. The Seahawks were behind by 20 points in the first half, trailed 27-7 when the fourth quarter began and didn’t force Atlanta’s first punt until midway through the final period.
But by the final minute, it was harder to see Seattle losing. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 385 yards, a playoff record for both the franchise and all NFL rookies, and the Seahawks scoring 21 consecutive points in the fourth quarter.
When Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left, Seattle had its first lead of the game and was in position to match the largest comeback victory of any game in franchise history.
Twenty-five seconds. That’s how much time was left when Atlanta’s offense took the field at its own 28, trailing for the first time all game. Twenty-five seconds. That’s how long Seattle’s defense — which allowed the fewest points in the league during the regular season — needed to hold out.
Turned out 12 seconds was all the Falcons needed to complete two passes and put kicker Matt Bryant in position for the game-winning field goal that turned Seattle’s incredible comeback into ash. The Falcons stopped the clock with 13 seconds to play, and eight seconds remained after the winning kick.
“We’re a real resilient young team,” defensive tackle Red Bryant said. “We had our opportunities. Atlanta made some great plays, and was able to get the game-winning field goal.”
And Seattle will spend the offseason wondering what might have been. What if Lynch hadn’t fumbled on his 11-yard run in the first quarter? What if Seattle had chosen to kick a field goal in the second quarter instead of going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 11? What if the Seahawks hadn’t frittered away a second scoring opportunity in the final minute of the second quarter, Wilson getting sacked on third down without any timeouts remaining?
And despite all that, Seattle was less than a minute from winning in the second round of the playoffs for only the third time in franchise history.
“We’re going to fight you to the end,” linebacker Leroy Hill said. “That’s one thing I can always say about this team. Until the last second, we fight. Just fell a little short.”
The Seahawks stared down their largest deficit of the season for the second consecutive week. And this time, they did it against a fully functional opposing quarterback. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan threw for three touchdowns, but was also picked off twice.
Wilson completed his first 10 passes of the second half. He threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate, scrambled 1 yard for a score and then found tight end Zach Miller for a 3-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
By the time Lynch scored in the final minute, losing control of the ball only after he crossed into the end zone, the nation was buzzing and Seattle was absolutely electric.
“It was an extraordinary game and an exquisite comeback,” Carroll said. “The quarterback was incredible and everybody that made all those plays to get us back.”
The future is bright for this team, which is one of the youngest in the league and has a rookie quarterback who stared down a double-digit deficit on the road in the playoffs for the second time in eight days. And there will be time to talk next season for this team, which has all but two of the starters in Sunday’s game signed for next season.
But that was an oh-so-winnable game the Seahawks lost in Atlanta. They outgained the Falcons 491 yards to 417. The Seahawks forced more turnovers (two) than they committed (one).
And for all the attention that Atlanta’s receivers got this week, it was Miller who led all players with eight catches for 142 yards, one away from matching the Seahawks’ franchise record for a postseason game.
Sure, Atlanta’s Roddy White caught a 47-yard touchdown pass — the longest scoring pass against Seattle this season — while timeless tight end Tony Gonzalez couldn’t have been more timely with his six catches, one of which resulted in a touchdown and another that set up the game-winning field goal.
Seattle didn’t run out of time after scoring four second-half touchdowns, it left too much of it, and now it will spend the offseason tortured by what could have been.
“I would have really liked it if he missed the kick,” Carroll joked.
It would have been even better for Seattle if it hadn’t come down to that.