ATLANTA — Two fourth-down plays on back-to-back defensive series in the third quarter helped create a deficit that was too much for the Atlanta Falcons to overcome against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon.
Whether they can overcome another season-opening loss remains to be seen.
In a crucial year for coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons already face a disturbingly familiar challenge. They know from recent history that bad starts can lead to bad finishes, and the 38-25 loss to Seattle left them 0-1 for the third straight season.
Devastatingly poor starts the past two years kept the Falcons out of the playoffs, but Atlanta defensive tackle Grady Jarrett insists this season can be different.
"It's a new year and a new team," he said. "We're excited to get back to work."
As for the Seahawks, they let Russell Wilson do the cooking — and the only thing he burned was the Falcons.
Showing what he can do when given a chance to open up the offense, Wilson threw four touchdown passes and dished out throws to nine receivers in all, finishing 31-of-35 for 322 yards. He also carried the ball three times for a team-high 29 rushing yards.
"We wanted to spread the ball around," Wilson said. "We wanted to get the ball to a lot of different guys. We wanted to be aggressive in our approach."
That sort of talk will surely be pleasing to Seahawks fans, who have pleaded with the team to "Let Russ Cook" — essentially a call to be more aggressive offensively from the start rather than relying on Wilson to keep leading dramatic comebacks.
The Seahawks threw on 21 of their first 35 plays at Atlanta, and more tellingly, Wilson dropped back to pass on seven of 12 first-down plays in the opening half and ran it himself two other times. There were only three handoffs in those situations.
"Russell was in total command of the game," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
Wilson threw a pair of touchdown passes to running back Chris Carson in the first quarter as Seattle built a 14-12 halftime lead at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where no fans were permitted to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Things shifted even more in the Seahawks' favor during the third quarter.
On fourth-and-5 at the Atlanta 38, Wilson floated a perfect sideline pass to DK Metcalf, who didn't have to break stride while beating man coverage from Isaiah Oliver.
"They made a good stop on third down and were all celebrating," Wilson said. "I looked at the sideline and said, 'OK, let's go after them.' I wanted to be aggressive."
On Atlanta's next possession, Quinn called a fake punt on fourth-and-2 from the Falcons' 33. It appeared to be a big gamble in a close game. The coach said the instructions were for upback Sharrod Neaseman to take the snap only "if we had the right look" from the Seattle punt coverage team.
"When the look came up, we executed it," Quinn said.
Neaseman would have had the 2 yards for the first down, but Seattle's Marquise Blair forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Freddie Swain.
The Seahawks took advantage of the game's first turnover with a quick scoring drive capped by Wilson's fourth touchdown pass, a 7-yarder to tight end Greg Olsen, an NFL veteran in his first season with Seattle after playing the past nine for the Carolina Panthers — a team the Falcons face twice each season in division play. Just like that, Atlanta's modest 14-12 deficit had turned into a 28-12 hole.
The Falcons no longer could stick with their plan for a balanced attack led by running back Todd Gurley, the former University of Georgia star who ran for 56 yards and a touchdown in his Atlanta debut after spending the first five seasons of his NFL career with the Rams.
Quinn said the fake punt showed the Falcons' commitment to taking risks this season, his sixth leading the Falcons.
"We certainly wanted to be bold," Quinn said. "With the group that we have, we want to continue to do that. You want to be bold, you want to be aggressive."
The Falcons have finished 7-9 the past two seasons after starting 1-4 in 2018 and 1-7 last year, when they won their last four games to save Quinn's job. With a tough challenge ahead in next week's visit to Dallas, the focus will be on avoiding another big deficit in the NFC South.
"We've just got to do better at the end of the day," Atlanta receiver Julio Jones said.
Atlanta's offense outgained the Seahawks 506 yards to 383, with three Falcons totaling more than 100 receiving yards, each of them on nine catches: Jones (157), Calvin Ridley (130) and Russell Gage (114).
Another highlight was Matt Ryan getting past John Elway for ninth on the NFL career passing yardage list. Ryan was 37-of-54 for 450 yards — the second-highest yardage total of his career — with two touchdown passes to Ridley, but even that wasn't enough against Wilson.
"Just being himself. He's a premier player in this league for a reason," said Atlanta's Jarrett, whose postgame optimism in spite of the loss had some merit.
Gurley looked explosive and said he feels healthy. Ryan, now 35, produced big numbers in the passing game. The Falcons had three sacks, including 1.5 by Jarrett. Younghoe Koo, though he missed an extra-point attempt, gave Atlanta hope for much-needed stability at kicker by making two 49-yard field goals.
Still, Atlanta's offense was 0-for-4 on fourth down and couldn't overcome the decisive sequence of plays in the third quarter.
"We didn't capitalize on certain situations," Jones said, "and I felt that determined the game."
Only one week into the season, the Falcons already feel a sense of urgency.
"We've got to put it together now," Gurley said. "You don't want to fall behind in this league."
Both teams protested racial injustice with a dramatic gesture on the first play of the game.
As the opening kickoff by Seattle's Jason Myers sailed through the end zone, all 22 players remained in place and took a knee. After a few seconds, they stood back up, trotted off the field and the game carried on with the Falcons taking the ball at their own 25.
"It was good to have both organizations come together and do something together," Jarrett said. "I think it will help spark conversations for change."
Civil rights leader John Lewis, a longtime congressman from Atlanta who died in July, also was honored as every player wore white armbands with the initials "JL" and the team logos.
In addition, the Falcons made Lewis an honorary captain. A black jersey with his name was draped over an empty spot on the Atlanta bench.