RENTON, Wash. -- Pete Carroll still remembers the conversation he had with Russell Wilson coming off the field following the Seattle Seahawks' 30-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 2012 divisional round.
"He put us back, and the offense got us back in the lead," Carroll said. "And it was a heartbreaking last 34 seconds. We’re walking out of the tunnel on the way off the field, and he’s already talking about next year and what we’re going to be able to do and all that kind of stuff. It was a pretty clear indicator at that point, if nothing else had told us before then, that this guy really is looking to the future, always going and always believing that things are going to happen right and good and all of that. It was a pretty clear message."
The message is one that Carroll preaches often: Keep playing and keep fighting regardless of the circumstances because something good is just around the corner.
The Seahawks fell behind 20-0 in that game, but Wilson threw for 385 yards and brought them back for a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left before the Falcons kicked the game-winning field goal.
Wilson was a rookie at the time, and much of the season had been about proving to his teammates that he was the right guy to lead them.
"I think you always have to earn everything," Wilson said. "You have to earn the respect. You have to earn the opportunity."
The Seahawks go to Atlanta this time around as a different group. They are filled with veterans who have been to the Super Bowl and want to get back.
But they also face the Falcons with significant obstacles in their way. Wilson hasn't been fully healthy all season. The defense is without All-Pro safety Earl Thomas. And the offensive line continues to be a question mark.
Last week against the Detroit Lions, Wilson completed 23 of 30 passes for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He ditched the brace that he'd been wearing since injuring his left knee in Week 3 but was still not a factor in the run game.
"It felt great," Wilson said. "Like I’ve been saying to you guys, I’ve been practicing the past five or six weeks without it, so my legs have been feeling really good. I just wanted to be smart, get to the playoffs and have a chance to hopefully go try to win it all. My legs felt great, and my legs feel good right now. Feeling fast and all that."
Asked how the brace was restrictive, Wilson said, "When I cycle over, I can’t really get my full range of motion. It was a pretty light brace, but at the same time you can’t get your full range of motion. It kind of impedes your stride a little bit. It’s nice to have it off."
The Seahawks never have to worry about Wilson's mindset. He has shown over the years that he doesn't get too high or too low and prioritizes the process over the results.
But the Seahawks need Wilson to be special in this game. The Falcons' offense averaged an NFL-best 31.56 points per game during the regular season. Seattle's defense played well against the Lions, but the margin for error in this game will be much smaller.
The Seahawks have made it to at least the divisional round of the playoffs every year that Wilson has been their quarterback, but he insists he doesn't take it for granted. After last week's win, Wilson gave the game ball to fullback Marcel Reece, who had never played in the postseason before.
"The amazing thing when I think about it, coming in as a rookie in 2012, I haven’t known anything else," Wilson said.
Carroll has said often that the past offseason felt like the one following the 2012 season when the Seahawks were coming off the loss to the Falcons and went on to win the Super Bowl the following year.
Seattle lost on the road to the Carolina Panthers last January and is hoping the conversation coming off the field in Atlanta is different this time around.
"You can get down when you lose a game sometimes. That’s the initial thought for most people," Wilson said recalling the 2013 loss to the Falcons. "For me, I was just thinking about the opportunity, what was next for our football team. I got a great sense of great things coming. That was kind of the thought process when I was leaving coming out of the tunnel to go back to the locker room. I just believed we could go win the Super Bowl next year and find a way.
"With the players that we’ve had and the character of guys we’ve had for the past five years and the work ethic and conviction we play with week in and week out, it’s been a great ride so far."