When your favorite team wins a bunch of games by a bunch of a points, it's easy to forget how hard it is to beat good teams -- especially on the road. There's a tendency to take for granted that a team playing as well as the Seahawks have been will continue to steamroll their opponents, no matter who, no matter where. Especially when they eviscerated one of the better teams in the league the week before.
The 49ers, however, are not just another speedbump on the schedule and despite many 'Hawks fans wanting to start shoveling dirt on their coffin, they have been playing really well over the last month and a half. Seattle came in looking to win the NFC West, to plant their flag in the middle of Candlestick Point but the Niners weren't ready to concede. San Francisco brought as close to a full compliment of their offensive weapons into this game as they had all season, with both Mario Manningham and, more consequently, Michael Crabtree at or near full strength. Combining those two with Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, the 49ers were able to spread out Seattle's physical secondary to a degree, and in so doing, create room for the running game.
The game followed a flow similar to what many of us expected. Where lately Seahawks games have resembled a strong, unbroken river, this one careened like like whitewater from a broken dam, crashing off boulders and powerfully carving its way through the landscape. No one reading this article needs to be told about how the players and coaches on these teams feel about each other, but when they face off, one is reminded by the sheer force they generate. I mean, it's like the physics are different when Seahawks and 49ers run into each other. If you were to throw all 1,600+ NFL players into a gladiator arena where only the last remaining survivor was allowed to leave, you can bet that at least half of the would-be final 20 were on the field in San Francisco today.
After the teams started the game by trading punts (two form Seattle, one from SF), San Francisco opened the scoring with a short Phil Dawson field goal, which caboosed a 10-play, 56-yard drive. After forcing a third straight Seahawks three and out, the 49ers special teams struck, with Kasim Osgood blocking Jon Ryan's punt and Dawson translating the land grant into three more points. Seattle has been mostly excellent on special teams this year (2nd in the NFL by DVOA), but this was an accident that could have been avoided. I don't know if there was a miscommunication between Malcolm Smith and Chris Maragos, but Osgood was the only second-level defender attacking the kick and he ran right past them essentially unimpeded. It's a mistake you can overcome when you're hosting the Vikings or the Titans but in a game like this, every score could be the difference.
Seattle answered back on their fourth drive, driving 80 yards on eight plays with Marshawn Lynch picking up 26 of them on five carries, including an 11-yard TD that came off a hard left-footed cut-back, giving the Seahawks their first lead. Seattle's bend-don't-break defensive philosophy was tested harshly, as San Francisco moved the ball well between the 20s all day. Their next drive was no different, using a penalty and a chunk completion to Boldin to set up Dawson's third threebie and put the 49ers back in front.
By this point, both offenses were beginning to find their rhythms, trading body blows like seasoned boxers but unable to land a knockout. The lead would change hands again after Seattle's next drive, turning four runs and three passes into 72 yards with the score coming on Seattle's longest play from scrimmage, a 39-yard seam-strike to rookie tight end Luke Willson that put the 'Hawks ahead 14-9 and forcing Colin Kaepernick to drive the length of the field in short order if the Niners were to avoid a halftime deficit.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Kaepernick and Co. did just that, traveling 72 yards on nine plays, finishing with a short touchdown pass to the otherwise quiet Vernon Davis with six seconds left and sending the Niners to the locker room with a 16-14 advantage. Both of these teams have, generally speaking, been excellent in the second halves of games this year and coming out of the break, it was clear that the defenses made the better adjustments.
After ending the first half on five consecutive scoring drives, the game shifted dramatically, with both defensive units bringing the boom on the regular. The 30 first half points faded into six in the second half. First downs went from easily achievable distance markers to country mileposts; the endzones disappeared altogether. Oh, and penalties. I'm not gonna say that the Seahawks got jobbed and I certainly won't say the 49ers did either. Let's be honest, there were flagable offenses committed by both teams on just about every play and while 16 total penalties for 155 yards may seem like a lot, credit the officials for not over-regulating an egregiously physical game. There were a couple of calls against the Seahawks I didn't like, but a couple that I thought they got away with, too. I'm sure honest 49ers fans would say the same. If you think penalties decided this game, feel free to hash it out in the comments section but I'm not ready to make that assertion.
Anyhow, the only score in the first 29 minutes of the second half was a shaky Steven Hauschka field goal that sneaked inside the left upright with 6:20 left in the game. It came after a 38-yard punt return from Golden Tate gave Seattle excellent field position but, as they found all third and fourth quarter long, the San Fran D wasn't letting anything get downfield and settled for advancing the ball a mere 14 yards on seven plays. Still, the kick put Seattle up by one and, for the second time in the game, put the pressure on the 49ers O to produce a score with limited time left.
With that stage set, Kaepernick took the field needing something, anything to avoid getting swept, to avoid going 0-3 in his career against the Seahawks, to avoid watching Seattle celebrate a division title on his field. But it wasn't the quarterbacking that did it. San Francisco put together an exhaustive drive that featured ten, yes ten, running plays -- the biggest of which being a 56-yard throwback run by Frank Gore, who got to the second level and then changing direction sharply, causing the hard-closing Earl Thomas to get briefly caught up in a block and opening the right half of the field up like the gates of Caanan.
After Richard Sherman chased Gore down at Seattle's 18 yard line, the 'Hawks defense stuffed the run on consecutive plays, forcing a third and seven. It was then that kaepernick turned in his biggest play of the game, taking a designed sweep around the left end for a first down with a little more than two minutes left and with Pete Carroll sans timeouts. It was at this juncture that I hope Carroll would instruct his guys to let the Niners score a touchdown. I knew that he wouldn't because Pete is big on trusting his defense in crunch time but I think mostly because the majority of NFL coaches maddeningly insist on fighting for every inch regardless of situational leverage.
I've got the feeling that this will dominate the majority of the conversation in the comments, so I'll explain where I'm coming from. At first and goal with just over two minutes and no timeouts remaining, the best case scenario for "bowing your back" (barring a flukey turnover) is that the Niners would use up as much clock as possible and kick a field goal with less than 30 seconds remaining. The alternative* is to let them score and leave yourself two minutes to get a touchdown. Without any timeouts, 30 seconds isn't enough time to do much, as you'd need a good kick return and two large chunk plays with no failures (or one huge one) and be able to either get the field goal unit set up in a flash or get out of bounds or spike the ball with time remaining and make the field goal. I've got a lot more faith in Russell Wilson and the guys to go the full length of the field with a couple of minutes to work with than for them to achieve the unlikely series of events set forth above with zero margin for error.
*Some of you may counter by saying if Seattle tried to let the Niners score, they could've just taken a knee and let the clock run down anyway, a la Brian Westbrook a few years back. I say let 'em. That's their choice to make and if they do, you're in absolutely no worse position than you were if you play your hardest.
Jim Harbaugh wrung every possible second out of the clock before sending Dawson out to kick a glorified extra point, which he did. That left the aforementioned path ahead of Seattle and, after Tate got knocked down inside his own 20 on the kick return, all that was left was for Wilson to heave and hope. That prayer fluttered back down to earth unanswered, resulting in a can o' corn interception by Eric Wright that sealed the win for San Francisco. Look, I get that you want to instill a certain mentality in your defense, but the only way Seattle escapes that particular situation with a win was with at least one gigantic blunder from San Francisco when their in full ball-protect mode. I'm all for a don't-give-an-inch defensive philosophy in the redzone, but I'm an even bigger fan of putting your team in the best position to win. I would simply contend that the way Seattle approached the final two minutes cost them significant leverage in their quest for a win.
*Seattle netted 264 yards on 50 plays (5.3 per), all below their season averages. San Francisco countered with 318 yards on 64 plays (5.0 per).
*The Seahawks nine penalties inched them closer to the league lead. They trail the Buccaneers by one in that category.
*Russell Wilson posted a respectable yet unspectacular 81.9 passer efficiency, completing 15 of his 25 passes for 199 yards (8.0 YPA), one touchdown to go with the previously mentioned interception. Colin Kaepernick finished with a 67.5 (15/29, 175, 1 TD, 1 INT).
*The one thing I saw the 49ers defense do better than any previous opponent was limit what Wilson could do when the play broke down. Wilson entered the game with a ridiculous 107.0 passer efficiency on broken plays (passes that take longer than three seconds to develop), a number so high that if left on it's own, would still be fourth in the NFL overall. In this game, however, Wilson found mostly trouble when he tried to scramble or throw on the run. Credit the quickness and assignment-correctness of Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, and Donte Whitner with keeping Wilson from magicianing his way to big yardage when his initial reads weren't there.
*Frank Gore out-rushed Marshawn Lynch 110-72, averaging 6.5 yards per carry to Lynch's 3.6. Much of that has to do with the fittingly rhino-esque qualities of Gore's running style but I think even more of it has to do with the brutish beauty of the San Fran blocking scheme. They are the masters of running plays that put one more blocker in position than there are guys to block, allowing Gore access to the second level that other backs have struggled to find against Seattle.
*Byron Maxwell has been outstanding the last couple of weeks. For the second straight game, Carroll and Dan Quinn seemed content to let him fend for himself, allowing Maxwell to go one-on-one with whoever the Niners trotted out across from him. His interception was one the biggest defensive play of the game, as he got perfect position inside Crabtree on a sideline route and high-pointed a well-thrown, if ill-advised pass from Kaepernick. It was the type of play you'd use in a How To Play Cornerback video and it was made by Seattle's fourth-string CB. Jeremy Lane also looked good. Kid's scrappy as shit.
*We're starting to see the field-stretching potential of Luke Willson. Three catches on four targets for 70 yards and a teeder.
*KJ Wright broke a bone in his foot. The prognosis is unknown at this time. Malcolm Smith looked very capable in his place, but here's hoping it's a short recovery for KJ.
*Bobby Wagner was excellent again. He was all over the game, and his desperation tackle of Kaepernick on the game's opening drive was the difference between a field goal and a touchdown.
*Golden Tate led the team with six catches (for 65 yards) and eight targets. I think he's the team's best receiver and it's nice to see him produce even when the focal point of the opposing defense.
Lots of other stuff we could go into, but we're 2,200 words into this thing and we've got a whole week to dissect it all. Even with the loss, Seattle remains in the driver's seat for home field advantage. The Saints beat the Panthers, moving them within a game of Seattle but given the obliteration they suffered in the CLink last week, their deficit is really 1.5 games. Losses suck, but it's fun to cheer for a team that allows losses to be accompanied by a feeling of surprise.