Will Seahawks pick up where they left off?

When the NFC championship game kicks off today, Seattle Seahawks players, now scattered around the country, won’t be able to watch without wondering what could have been; without thinking that they should be in San Francisco playing their division rivals for a trip to the Super Bowl, not watching the 49ers and Atlanta vying for it.

“I’ll think that forever,” said linebacker Leroy Hill as he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers recently. “This is one of the best teams I’ve ever played on. The resilience of this team, the heart, the fight. … You just hate to waste a team like this.”

It will be impossible for Seahawks players (and fans, for that matter) to not torture themselves with what ifs throughout the offseason.

What if they had closed out another game or two during the season and earned the NFC’s No. 2 seed and the home playoff game that comes with it?

What if they hadn’t spotted the Falcons a 20-point lead? Or what if, after coming back, they could have stopped the Falcons on that final drive?

“We felt like we were the best team out there right now,” fullback Michael Robinson said. “But we just didn’t get it done (against Atlanta), and it’s unfortunate, because we had a lot of confidence and we were hoping we could keep it going. …

“We’re a good team right now, but we’ve got to go from good to being a championship football team. We’ve just got to take that next step.”

So, can the Seahawks take that next step next season? Do they have what it takes to be playing at this time next year? Well since the Seahawks went 11-5 in 2012, let’s take a look at 11 reasons why the Seahawks can advance further next season, and five why they might not.

11 reasons the Seahawks can go further

1. Russell Wilson

“Everybody in this building, and everybody that follows us realizes what kind of player he is, and he’s just getting started. … He’s a baller. He’s a real football player.” — Head coach Pete Carroll.

2. Almost everybody will be back

Change is inevitable in the NFL, but the Seahawks will have about as much continuity as is possible with only two starters, linebacker Leroy Hill and defensive tackle Alan Branch, headed for free agency.

3. Young players only should get better

The Seahawks were one of the youngest teams in the NFL this season, so even if they didn’t add anyone in free agency or the draft that could help them — which they will — the team should improve as young players gain experience.

4. Adding to the mix

Based on past history, you have to assume that impact players will be added in the draft. No team is perfect in the draft, but the Seahawks have done pretty darn well under Pete Carroll and John Schneider. So it’s hard to imagine that with 10 picks in April’s draft, they won’t find a few players who can come in and help right away.

5. Russell Wilson

“Russell is just getting started, that’s the thing, man. He can will you to a victory. … The biggest jump of improvement is usually from the first to second year for all players, so I look forward to big things from him next year.” — Fullback Michael Robinson.

6. Coaching continuity

Yes the Seahawks lost defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to Jacksonville, but they replaced him with Dan Quinn, who knows the defense and many of the players he’ll be coaching. And the Seahawks will keep Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable, the two men in charge of the offense, which bodes well for next season considering how much the offense progressed in the second half of the season.

7. The Legion of Boom

Is that a kind of cheesy nickname for Seattle’s secondary? Sure. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Seahawks do have the best secondary in the NFL. And for all of their accolades — Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman were both named first-team All-Pros this year, and Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner were Pro Bowl players a year ago — Seattle’s defensive backs are all young enough that they should only get better next year.

8. Russell Wilson

“We have a quarterback who will be here for a long time, and that’s a great start right there.” — Receiver Golden Tate.

9. Road warriors now

They know now they can win on the road. The Seahawks have long been a team that struggles on the road, but this season they won three in a row away from home, all in eastern or central time zones, before losing a heartbreaker in Atlanta. That should lead to more confidence on the road next season.

10. Lessons learned

It’s hard to imagine this defense will blow that many fourth-quarter leads for a second straight year. One of the biggest mysteries about Seattle’s 2012 season is how a defense good enough to allow the fewest points in the NFL could struggle to close out games so often. The Seahawks had fourth-quarter leads against Arizona, Detroit, Miami and Atlanta and lost all four of those games. They also blew a late lead in Chicago but won in overtime.

11. No, seriously guys, Russell Wilson

“After the Chicago game, you had a team full of believers that he could do anything. We’d be surprised if he walked on water and fell in,” — cornerback Richard Sherman.

5 reasons why they might not

1 The 49ers aren’t going anywhere

It’s entirely possible that the two best teams in the NFC next season could come out of the NFC West, and if that were to happen, Seattle or San Francisco could conceivably win 11 or 12 games and have to go on the road in the playoffs.

2 NFC West is only getting better

The St. Louis Rams took a big step forward under first-year coach Jeff Fisher, and showed in their Week 17 game in Seattle that they’ll be tough to deal with next season. The Cardinals, meanwhile, could take a similar step forward under Bruce Arians next season

3 Good health again?

Until the Seahawks lost defensive end Chris Clemons to a blown knee against Washington, they had remarkably good fortune when it came to injuries. In that playoff opener against the Redskins, Seattle had every Week 1 starter available except Braylon Edwards, who only started the opener because Golden Tate was hurt. The Seahawks have the depth to withstand injuries and still be good, but a couple of key injuries at a bad time can have an impact, as we saw when Clemons — and the pass rush — were absent last week.

4 Defenses catching on

Given an offseason to study, defenses might catch up the zone-read option. Now this wouldn’t be devastating to the Seahawks if the option element of their offense became ineffective; they were hardly reliant on the zone-read to move the ball. But it was undoubtedly a big part of their late-season offensive growth, so if defenses were better at stopping it next season, it could make the Seahawks slightly less explosive in the short term.

5. Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson could have a sophomore slump. Nah, this can’t happen, right?

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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