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In fight between two worthy champs, Seahawks' D is left with what-ifs

"Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city. Lawdy, lawdy, he's a great champion." -- Joe Frazier, on Muhammad Ali, "Lawdy, Lawdy, He's Great," by Mark Kram

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When greatness and greatness collide in sports, the aftershock will leave one entity filled with victory and legacy, and another bereft at its inability to rise to the occasion. But that defeated subject can find solace and redemption over time, if the effort is total, and reflective of the greatness within. It was that way when Joe Frazier fell short against Muhammad Ali in the "Thrilla in Manila," and it was that way when the Seattle Seahawks fell to the New England Patriots in dramatic fashion in Super Bowl XLIX, a battle between two great champions.

SI's complete coverage of Super Bowl XLIX 

Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane was the first on his team to leave the field at University of Phoenix Stadium, in a Super Bowl starters' jacket with his No. 92 stitched above his heart on the left side. And Mebane's blank stare said it all -- one of Seattle's best players, he's been out since November with a hamstring injury.

Cornerback Jeremy Lane was out of the picture, because he was dealing with a severe arm injury that he suffered while returning his first-quarter interception of a Tom Brady pass to Julian Edelman. With Lane out of the game as the slot corner, the Seahawks moved outside cornerback Byron Maxwell inside, and put young cornerback Tharold Simon outside. Simon was playing press-bail coverage on the 11-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell with 9:47 left in the second quarter, and as LaFell said after the game, Simon will eventually be a great player, but the Patriots look for mismatches, and that's what they got. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas tended to cheat to the side of tight end Rob Gronkowski, Simon bailed, and LaFell had a clear path to the end zone.

Three Thoughts: Patriots rally past Seahawks to win Super Bowl XLIX

If Maxwell was outside, maybe that play doesn't happen. If end Cliff Avril hadn't been hurt, maybe Brady gets pressured into another pick. The Seahawks will never know. They were left instead with a ton of "what-ifs," and no way to erase the voices in their heads, telling them that it doesn't matter anymore how great they've been -- all that's left is what could have been.

"We ran it the same," Richard Sherman said when asked if those injuries affected Seattle's gameplan. "They were two big injuries to core guys for us, but we ran the same plays. We executed, even though some mistakes were made at the end. We were able to overcome some of those injuries and give ourselves a chance. I think we had a chance to win the game."

Sherman said that after playing with torn elbow ligaments that may require extensive offseason surgery. 

The Seahawks are known for insisting that they will play their way no matter what an opponent does, and this is where it might have been smarter to adapt. Was it hubris from a team that has been full of it at times? It appeared so, and the Seahawks paid for it.

Richard Sherman reacts to Seahawks' loss to Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX

Especially after Lane's injury, the strategy was clear -- Brady set a Super Bowl record with 21 passing first downs and 37 completions, and the Patriots tied a Super Bowl low with one rushing first down.

"We expected them to come in and feature the run game as well," said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who will likely be announced as the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons within a day or two. "They're a hard team to prepare for, because one game can be 12 or 13 runs, and the next game, it's 44. When you go against this team, you have to be prepared to go any number of different ways."

New England was Ali: skilled, practiced, adaptable. Seattle was Frazier: unyielding, tough, and in the end, beaten by the things they didn't see. 

New England played their hurry-up offense to perfection, and even though the Seahawks were game, it was not enough -- the Patriots kept making play after play after play. Most of those plays were passes underneath to check against Seattle's predominant Cover-3 defense, and it was Brady's will and skill that outlasted a Seattle defense that is finding it very, very tough to remember how great it has been.

"It was like death. Closest thing to dyin' that I know of." -- Ali

Moving into Seattle's locker room was another exercise in near-death, in the metaphorical sense. Seattle's 28-24 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX was a severe hit to a young defense that expected to win this game, because they've done it so often over the last three seasons. They're still the first team since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings to lead the NFL in points allowed three straight years, and the first since the 1985-86 Chicago Bears to lead the league in points and yards allowed two straight seasons, but all that was lost in the wash of a stunning defeat. You'd have to go quite a few years, and visit several losing Super Bowl locker rooms, before you see anything like this. It's a young defense, and all they've known is the ascent. Now, the journey back begins.

"My hat is off to Seattle," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said from the podium after the game. "The game couldn't have been any closer that what it was. They're a great football team that was within a yard or so, or a few seconds -- however you want to look at it -- of winning a second title."

Patriots intercept Russell Wilson to seal Super Bowl XLIX win

​LaFell told me that the Legion of Boom secondary "deserves every nickname it's given," but names don't wear well over this kind of hurt. When Russell Wilson threw a quick red-zone slant with time running out, and Patriots rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler picked it off, all of Seattle's dreams were dashed, and all the comebacks ... the amazing plays ... the nearness to true greatness... meant nothing.

"Sit down, son. It's all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today." -- Eddie Futch, Joe Frazier's trainer, at the end of the fight.

Sherman and Earl Thomas sat together, and it was as quiet as Sherman has ever been. Sherman was distraught, of course, but he spent his time trying to console Thomas, who expects victory and takes defeat harder than anyone else on that team. Thomas sat on a small stool, bent over at the waist, as if the loss had assaulted his very being. He shook his head over and over, inconsolable.

Eventually, an attendant came over to cut off Thomas' jersey,

Sherman walked away, and the moment was broken.

A few lockers away, linebacker K.J. Wright, whose struggles against tight ends continued when he gave up the 22-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski with 31 seconds left in the first half, did not move. For minutes. And then, slowly and inevitably, he lifted his head from his hands and turned to one side, perhaps because facing this head-on was too tough at that moment.

"I heard somethin' once. When somebody asked a marathon runner what goes through his mind in the last mile or two, he said that you ask yourself why am I doin' this. You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you. It makes you go a little insane. I was thinkin' that at the end. Why am I doin' this? What am I doin' here in against this beast of a man? It's so painful. I must be crazy. I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I'll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him." -- Ali

And in the end, even as the Patriots saluted and conceded to Seattle's greatness, they won fair and square, and a defense that could be back on this stage again next season had to accept that. Had to accept the mortality of losing. Had to accept, as Joe Frazier did on that oppressively muggy night four decades ago, that sometimes you bring your best, and you simply get beat.

"I'm not sure it does much to our legacy," a tired Sherman said. "I think we've got a bunch of fourth- and fifth-year guys, and we'll have a chance to, through God's grace, get back here and have another chance at it."

There is nothing to ease that pain but time, and the promise of another opportunity -- and the potential for that pain all over again.