How an 86-yard penalty and a disastrous safety killed the Seattle Seahawks' season
In a game that started as a back-and-forth slugfest, the Seahawks appeared to draw first blood in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff in Atlanta after an 80-yard punt return by Devin Hester put Seattle yards from a touchdown that would put the team up double-digits. But then, as quickly as Hester sprung free on the return, it all fell apart with the game flipping in three minutes of real time, revving the 540-horsepower Falcons offense and sending the Seahawks spiraling into a free fall from which they never would recover in a 36-20 loss.
It started with Atlanta punting down 10-7 midway through the second quarter. Hester, the NFL's record holder for touchdown returns who was cut by Baltimore in December after making two errors in a big loss, fielded the booming kick from on his own 13-yard line. He immediately did a spin move, ran forward and then, like we've seen countless times over his 11-year career, shot into high gear, sprinting left with gazelle-like strides and putting everybody in red on chase mode.
But the speed has waned — 34 isn't 24 — and Hester was knocked out of bounds at the Atlanta 7-yard line. No matter — at worst Seattle was about to go up 13-7 in a game that was going to be a slugfest on both sides of the ball. At best, the Falcons would quiet the raucous crowd at the Georgia Dome by taking a 17-7 lead and making Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense come from behind.
But as Hester was streaking down the field, a flag was sitting at the line of scrimmage. At first it didn't seem to matter: Penalties called near the line tend to go against the kicking team, not the return team. If that were the case, the penalty would have been declined and Hester's return would stay on the board. But after a brief officials huddle, the announcement came: defensive holding. Kevin Pierre-Louis. The 80-yard punt return was wiped out. Seattle still had first down from the 7, only it was from its own 7, not Atlanta's. The foul essentially cost the Seahawks 86 yards.
It was the right call. Pierre-Louis tackled Atlanta's LaRoy Reynolds. The tape didn't lie. But this wasn't like those kick returns touchdowns that come back because someone pushed a would-be tackler in the back, freeing a teammate up to score. It was away from the ball — a hold not immediately vital to the play. Hester still may have gone 80 yards without it. (For what it's worth though, Richard Sherman probably should have been called for one of the aforementioned penalties. Atlanta's Justin Hardy was the first to get to Hester and looked like he might have a clean tackle just after he fielded the punt but Sherman, who was trailing on the play, did what Richard Sherman does when he's trailing on a play — he grabbed, held, pushed and shoved — springing Hester for the return that wouldn't be.)
That was the gut-punch for the Seahawks, but one that would have allowed them to catch their breath. Before they could even think about it though came a kick in the teeth. On second down from his own 4, Russell Wilson took the snap and had his foot stepped on by Seahawks rookie guard Rees Odhiambo, who was in the lineup only after an injury to Germain Ifedi. Wilson stumbled to the turf and was touched down in the end zone for a safety.
What should have been a 10-7 Seattle lead with 7 yards to go for a touchdown suddenly was a 10-9 Seahawks lead with Atlanta getting the ball. The momentum, which had turned with Hester's return quickly shifted back. After getting the free kick near midfield, the Falcons eventually kicked a field goal to go up 12-10. They never would relinquish the lead.
When Seattle went three-and-out on its next possession Atlanta immediately went on a 99-yard scoring drive (just the third team since 1994 to do that in the playoffs) and the game felt done. The Seahawks, a team with no quit, almost looked resigned to it.
Matt Ryan played like the MVP (which he'll probably be), completing 26 of 37 for 338 yards and three TDs. The Falcons have the top offense in the league. To a team that scored 34 points per game during the regular season, a 10-point deficit at home with well over a half of football to be played was only discomforting, not doom. They put up 27 points after the safety. Seattle may well have lost by two touchdowns even if Hester had taken the punt to the house without any laundry on the field.
They never got to find out because of a maddening tackle 60 yards away from the football and the careless footwork of a rookie thrown into duty in the biggest game of the year. Forty-seven seconds, the game time from the end of the Hester non-return to the officials blowing their whistles and signaling for a safety. That's how quickly it can all fall to pieces in the NFL.