He set his feet, steeled his gaze and uncorked a heavenly heave, a 60-yard Hail Mary headed toward a pair of Seattle Seahawks receivers on the right side of the Georgia Dome's south end zone. And, quite naturally, Russell Wilson convinced himself that another miracle was imminent.
As the football left the young quarterback's hand and floated through the temperature-controlled Atlanta air last January, the fate of two playoff teams hanging in the balance, Wilson envisioned a last-gasp touchdown that would surpass even the lunacy of the replacement-ref-fueled Monday night madness of late September.
Then, suddenly, the dream was over: Julio Jones, the talented Atlanta Falcons receiver moonlighting as a prevent-defense safety, went up and snatched the ball -- and choked out the Seahawks' stirring season, snuffing the visitors' dramatic comeback and securing a 30-28 divisional-round playoff victory. As more than 70,000 fans filled the dome with the deafening din of jubilation, the Seahawks trudged solemnly into the end-zone tunnel and filed toward their locker room. Though many faces revealed anger and frustration, no one dared disturb the sound of silence.
For a few seconds, Wilson, the undersized third-round draft pick turned rookie revelation, was as devastated as the rest of his teammates. Abruptly -- and loudly -- the quarterback's demeanor shifted.
"Hey, don't even worry about it, cause we're gonna be so (damn) good next year, it's ridiculous," Wilson intoned, his voice rising. "Remember how this feels. Remember this when we're working all offseason. Because we're going to be right back in this situation again and again, and next time, we're gonna finish it."
In the moment, Wilson's defiant optimism failed to resonate with some of his teammates. "He was real excited and upbeat ... talkin' that (smack)," Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks' Pro Bowl running back, recalled at training camp earlier this month. "I was like, Damn, dude. Let me be mad for a minute."
Seven months later, the memory of that trip through the Georgia Dome tunnel makes Lynch -- and virtually everyone in the locker room -- smile and nod knowingly.
After all, in their minds, Wilson wasn't lying: The Seahawks will, in fact, be loaded in 2013, especially after an offseason that general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll attacked with the subtlety of Pearl Jam playing a RKCNDY set in the early '90s.
Even without the services of newly acquired wideout Percy Harvin, who'll miss most (or all) of the season while recovering from hip surgery, Seattle is ready to rock. Carroll will field a deep and driven team led by an indefatigable franchise quarterback who's convinced that last year's playoff performance (which included a road victory over Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins) was merely an opening act.
"What's really sunk in is just thinking about all the things that we can do better," Wilson says. "That's what's really amazing. I think that we have so much more room to grow as an offense. There are so many more touchdowns out there. That's the exciting part."
Coming off a pair of impressive preseason outings, including a 40-10 thrashing of the Denver Broncos last Saturday in which Seattle scored 33 first-half points, the Seahawks have created a sense of excitement that extends well beyond the Pacific Northwest. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I, too, have come down with a case of Seahawks Fever -- at least to the point where I'm picking them to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XLVIII next February at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Since I'm new here at NFL.com, I feel obligated to repeat a refrain I developed during my 13-year stint at Sports Illustrated and carried to Yahoo! Sports from 2007-13: Just because I'm predicting a certain team to win, please don't confuse that with my wanting said team to succeed. I have 32 babies, and I love them equally -- though some give me more trouble than others.
Back in my SI days, forecasting the future was an ancillary afterthought that had nothing to do with covering the NFL. Times (and consumer expectations) have changed, and in recent years, I've been asked to pick the winner of each and every game. Apparently I've done so with noteworthy proficiency relative to my peers -- which, of course, sets me up for a hard fall in 2013.
I was all over the Seahawks before last season, even before my WTF moment in late September that spawned a meme, T-shirt and plenty of turmoil in my household: I have two sons who, ever since Green Bay spent a first-round draft pick on a quarterback who starred for their parents' shared alma mater (you call it "Cal" or "UC Berkeley"; we call it "God's University"), have been hardcore Packer Backers and did not appreciate the "Fail Mary" or the hoopla that followed.
And while my 14-year-old became a bit more forgiving of Seattle after Richard Sherman's return of a blocked David Akers field goal helped him earn a stunning, come-from-behind, half-point victory in his fantasy football championship game three months later, his sarcasm-prone younger brother remains convinced that the Seahawks are Satan's spawn and that I am their enthusiastic messenger.
"Wow, you're picking the Seahawks?" he asked upon learning of this column's topic. "I'm so surprised ... We get it. You love them."
Full disclosure: When I was the little dude's age (11) falling hard for the NFL as a West LA youth in the mid-'70s, my heart belonged to the San Francisco 49ers, the team that represented the city of my birth. That went away as soon as I started covering the then-defending Super Bowl champs for a pair of newspapers from 1989-94, and though I've now spent a majority of my life in Northern California, the only teams I truly love either represent the college I attended (and trust me, I obsess over all of Cal's sports squads) or have one of my kids on the roster (this fall, I'm locked in on my 17-year-old daughter and the defending league champion Blue Devils).
So no, it gives me zero pleasure to pick against the Niners, especially considering that they are uniquely positioned to make me look foolish. This is the first time in many, many years that I have gone into an NFL season convinced that the two best teams play in the same division, and given that 49ers owner Jed York rightfully describes the NFC West (which includes the up-and-coming St. Louis Rams and much-improved Arizona Cardinals) as the "toughest division in professional sports," nothing about the Seahawks' potential path to promised land will be easy.
On so many levels, the Seahawks-49ers rivalry is supercharged, and I expect the NFL's balance of power to tilt left this season. Forced to choose one as the eventual champion, I'm rolling with the 'Hawks, in part because they made such a strong impression every time I saw them in person last season.
For all the obvious outcry surrounding the Fail Mary, it obscured the emphatic statement made by the Seahawks' defense, which sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times in the first half of that victory over the Packers. The offseason free-agent signings of a pair of accomplished pass rushers, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, potentially makes this unit even scarier in 2013.
Three weeks later, in a 24-23 home victory over the New England Patriots best remembered for Sherman's "U MAD BRO" taunt of Tom Brady, I got another taste of Wilson's late-game magic and sublime touch when it comes to throwing the deep ball.
Two days before Christmas, I returned to CenturyLink Field to watch the Seahawks dismantle the Niners by a 42-13 score -- and saw how potent Seattle can be when all three units are playing at a high level.
And three weeks later in Atlanta, after the Falcons had reestablished a 20-point lead over the 'Hawks with just over 17 minutes remaining in their divisional-round playoff game, I witnessed a furious and breathtaking comeback that took the visitors to the brink of victory -- and helped convince Wilson, as he walked through the tunnel, that 2013 couldn't get here soon enough.
Eight months earlier, the scene that took place in the Georgia Dome tunnel would have seemed incomprehensible. Yet during a visit to the Seahawks' training camp last summer, I got the profound sense that Wilson would win the three-way quarterback competition being staged by Carroll. That Wilson was legitimately allowed to seize the job was a testament to perhaps the NFL's least conventional head coach -- we'll see if Chip Kelly gives Carroll a run for his money -- and reinforced his always compete mantra more vividly than any speech ever could.
From the time Wilson arrived shortly after the 2012 NFL Draft, the kid didn't carry himself like a humble rookie or as the team's quarterback of the future. No -- he acted like the team's quarterback of the present.
"I was gonna approach it like I was gonna be the starter," Wilson recalls. "I had the same mentality then as I do now."
Suffice it to say that when Wilson, be it in a minicamp huddle or meeting room, projected that take-charge confidence, he received his share of double-takes and eye rolls from some of the veterans in his vicinity.
"I was one of those guys, yeah," wideout Golden Tate admits. "I said, 'Man, come on.' But that's just him. He's really everything you want in a quarterback."
Wilson -- along with Griffin, the Colts' Andrew Luck and the Niners' Colin Kaepernick -- is part of a new wave of young, athletic passers who seem innately to grasp what being a franchise quarterback means, on and off the field. When you've got a guy like that leading your team, it's a scintillating sensation, and that's why Carroll didn't shy away from addressing the Seahawks' enormous upside when we spoke earlier this month.
"Yeah, I think I can tell what this team is," Carroll said. "We've been building this thing for some time now. You've still got to go out and prove it every week. You can't say, 'Oh, they're like this forever.' Stuff can change. But we know what our potential is. I think we know ourselves really well. And that's really important. We're gonna try to go out there and recreate our best side every time we go. And we have a chance to be a really nice team."
Back in 1995, shortly after I'd made the jump to Sports Illustrated, Carroll arrived in San Francisco as the 49ers' innovative, ultra-enthusiastic defensive coordinator, and I became convinced he'd someday coach a team to a Super Bowl championship.
In addition to being one of the sport's most renowned defensive strategists, he's smart enough to recognize something that many people -- fans and football insiders alike -- tend to misrepresent: Who I pick (or who anyone picks) to win on any given Sunday is as relevant as whether I ride with Biggie or Tupac (I love both, but I'm a West Coast guy) or choose sushi or Mexican food for my postgame dinner.
A few weeks ago, in a dark, quiet tunnel outside the locker room at the Seahawks' training facility, I asked Carroll how he felt about my intention to pick his team to win it all. He smiled and replied, "You'd be surprised, Mike, how we really don't pass judgment here." There was a touch of dry sarcasm to his delivery -- my 11-year-old son surely would have been proud.
A few seconds later, Carroll continued: "You're on it. We're a good team. We've got good players at a lot of spots. And we're getting better."
If they end up getting as good as I think they'll be, the Seahawks might, in fact, conclude the 2013 campaign feeling Super. Should that happen, I probably won't resist the urge to remind some folks that I saw it coming.
The record will show, however, that Wilson saw it first.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.