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O’Neil: What We Learned from the Seahawks’ season-ending loss

The Seahawks allowed 34 points or more in three of their six games after losing Earl Thomas in Week 13. (AP)

The Seahawks’ season ended in the same place it did a year ago.

Wait. That’s not right. Seattle’s playoff run ended in Carolina last season, not Atlanta. But both losses came on the road in the divisional round.

Here’s an attempt to figure out what we learned from Seattle’s 36-20 defeat.

Three things we learned:

Seattle lost its edge against top offenses.

Atlanta is exactly the kind of offense the Seahawks used to neuter. They did it in 2013, beating New Orleans once in the regular season and again in the playoffs. They did it in the Super Bowl that season, muzzling what was a record-setting Denver offense to the tune of one touchdown and then performing an encore in an overtime victory the following season. Even back in Week 6, the Seahawks held Atlanta to three points in the first half only to have the Falcons finish Saturday’s playoff game with more touchdowns (four) than punts (two).

That edge Seattle lost had a name: Earl Thomas.

Once Thomas was lost to that broken leg, suddenly opposing quarterbacks – especially good ones – didn’t have nearly as much to worry about. The Seahawks gave up 34 or more points three times in the six games since Thomas suffered his injury in Week 13. Those three games came against teams quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer and Matt Ryan, respectively. Consider that before Thomas went down, the Seahawks allowed 34 or more points only twice in their previous 53 games, including the playoffs. While opposing teams didn’t pick apart Thomas’ replacement specifically, it sure seems that his absence left top quarterbacks free to carve up Seattle’s defense in general.

The Seahawks had a rebuilding year.

At least they did on the offensive line. They took a step backward this year, a reality underscored by the fact that four of the team’s seven active linemen on Saturday were rookies. It was the single most predictable and consistent flaw on this team, and one that should prompt some pretty serious introspection this offseason. Do the Seahawks really think that George Fant can become an above-average left tackle in the next 12 to 24 months? Did the two games Garry Gilliam spent out of the starting lineup serve as a wake-up call? If the answer to either of those questions is no, the Seahawks have to consider acquiring a veteran with proven bona fides to provide some stability.

Three things we’re still trying to figure out:

What happened to Seattle’s pass rush the second half of the season?

For all the attention that Thomas’ absence has gotten, his injury doesn’t explain the sudden erosion of the Seahawks’ pass rush. Seattle had 27 sacks over the first eight games. They had 15 over the final eight, and the one thread that connected Seattle’s blowout loss in Green Bay back in December and Saturday’s defeat in the divisional round of the playoffs was the inability to pressure an elite quarterback. The Packers scored 38 points, the most allowed by Seattle since Pete Carroll’s first season as coach. The Falcons scored 36, which matched the second-most ever allowed by Seattle in a playoff game.

How healthy was Russell Wilson?

Consider the guy’s season for a second. He had a strained pectoral muscle, and it was like his third-most important injury in the first two months of the season. He was moving better by the end of the year, but he still didn’t look like he did in previous seasons. He wasn’t able to outrun linebackers, either, and there were a couple of times a defensive lineman prevented him from getting to the corner. The good news is that he won’t need surgeries. Now, we need to see what an offseason of recovery does for him.

What do you do with Jimmy Graham?

He is an unparalleled talent at his position. A guy who came back from a career-threatening knee injury in the best shape of his career and showed that to the entire country during a Monday night game against Buffalo when he had two one-handed touchdown catches. Wait. Did I say that right? He caught two different touchdown passes, each using just one of the oversized oven-mitts that he calls hands. He was targeted three times in Saturday’s playoff game, one fewer than backup running back Alex Collins. The inability of Seattle to make him a featured element of the passing game was the single most perplexing thing about the offense this season. He’s scheduled to earn a $7.9 million base salary next season with a $2 million roster bonus. He’s a good enough player to merit the money, but not if Seattle can’t figure out a way to consistently target him on offense.