Opportunity lost: Seahawks help Bears turn them into victims

By the end, the Seahawks were fighting just to fight. The Chicago Bears had all of the game’s spoils under one arm, and they were stiff-arming their inferior foe with the other. Yet the Seahawks persisted, spunky even while spent, throwing haymakers.

This wacky yet fulfilling season couldn’t have concluded with a more circular ending. From the beginning of Pete Carroll’s inaugural campaign, you knew the Seahawks were a few behemoths short of elite. You hoped the effervescent coach would at least restore their fire and push them to overachieve. It took them the entire season, but they succeeded in accomplishing more than imagined. But the original dream, no matter how wild, always ended with this rebuilding, patchwork squad being stamped “Not Good Enough.”

On Sunday, it felt like the entire Seahawks season, sans the glory of late, replayed itself in one game. The Bears pulled the magic carpet from underneath them, and they suffered a vicious crash. They didn’t just lose; they watched two of their better players get KO’d along the way. And though the end result wasn’t as frightening as the concussions that left tight end John Carlson and cornerback Marcus Trufant unconscious for short periods, there were some discouraging conclusions to make about this game.

The worst part: In a 35-24 defeat that was much worse before some garbage-time deceit, the always competin’ Seahawks allowed themselves to become victims. Their fight at the end — three fourth-quarter touchdowns to make what was a 28-0 score look respectable — was commendable. But in falling behind, the Seahawks’ feistiness couldn’t conceal their flaws, and they were victims of the Bears’ manhandling, their own uncharacteristically timid game plan and their inability to convert on opportunities that could’ve kept the game close.

The manhandling wasn’t a surprise, but, in general, the Seahawks had displayed more physical toughness on offense and defense this season. The coaches’ bashfulness and the players’ disinterest in carpe diem were bewildering.

“We let this game get away from us,” defensive back Jordan Babineaux said. “And the Bears are not that much better of a football team than what the stats and the score say.”

Of course, Babineaux took this loss hard. He could’ve made a game-changing interception early in the game. The Seahawks were down 7-0 in the first quarter, the Bears were 3 yards from scoring again, and Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler threw a pass right at the player aptly nicknamed Big Play Babs. He could’ve posted a dramatic 99-yard interception return. But Babineaux dropped it. The Bears wound up scoring to take a 14-0 lead. Babineaux was still angry with himself 40 minutes after the game.

The missed opportunities didn’t end there, though. From multiple dropped passes to poor tackling to getting just one turnover when there were openings for several, the Seahawks bobbled too many chances to play a more competitive game.

But it’s not like the coaching staff helped them, either. Winning a playoff game at Soldier Field required a stellar game plan. The Seahawks weren’t even satisfactory in this area.

On defense, they didn’t blitz much, even though they had used exotic defensive pressure packages to sack Cutler six times and exploit a weak Bears offensive line during a victory over Chicago in the regular season. This time, the Seahawks were way too laid-back. Carroll explained the Bears had too many third-and-short situations in this game, which are not good blitzing opportunities. Still, the Seahawks were too content to let Cutler get comfortable in the pocket and rip apart their defensive coverage. He threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns, the first of which was a deflating 58-yarder to tight end Greg Olsen on the game’s first drive.

“It wasn’t anything special or particular we did,” Olsen said. “It just happened to be the way the ball went.”

On offense, the Seahawks were too conservative, and Carroll’s decision not to go for it on fourth-and-one early in the game served as a harbinger. They became vanilla partly because they were forced to play without any tight ends for significant stretches because Carlson left in the first quarter, and the only other active tight end, Cameron Morrah, hobbled through most of the game with a turf-toe injury. Wide receiver Ruvell Martin had to play some tight end, as did some of the offensive linemen. So that unit turned into a mess that, for the umpteenth time this season, couldn’t run the football (Cutler outrushed Seattle 43 to 34).

Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates didn’t adjust quickly enough to the tight-end dilemma. Their game plan depended heavily on that position, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. It certainly looked like it.

“We have a big, giant call sheet,” Hasselbeck said. “It took it down to about just, like, a corner of it.”

The Seahawks needed to play their best game to beat the Bears, who are for real, by the way. They needed to perform at a level even higher than they did against New Orleans. Instead, they were a playoff remix of their 2010 season: erratic, fidgety, unworthy.

It doesn’t make their invigorating run to the divisional playoff round any less special. But, sadly, it does mean their season ends with the type of performance you could’ve envisioned long ago.

“Back to the drawing board,” linebacker David Hawthorne said. “There’s nothing to stop us from getting back here next year.”

It’s about to get more challenging, but Hawthorne is right. Next time, however, perhaps the Seahawks will be more equipped to handle a challenge this immense.