I watched this game at the Pyramid Alehouse across the street from Century Link Field, neck-deep in potables and surrounded by a legion of 'Hawks maniacs, my buddies, and my gorgeous fiance. When you spend so many Sundays taking notes and outlining articles, you forget how communal, how unifying watching a football game with a bunch of fans is. You also forget how drunk you get. So here goes...
In a way, this game was a shame. It marked the de facto end of what has become the most marketable rivalry in a league obsessed with marketability. And lest you jump on that assertion as a premature exultation, consider this: in the last six head-to-head-matchups between the Seahawks and the 49ers, Seattle has gone 5-1, outscoring San Francisco 147-62 -- an average score of 24.5-10.3. The beef between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh has been squashed beneath the Emerald City's collective heel, with the former positioning his team for home field advantage for the second straight season and the latter dealing with reports of his guys hating playing for him and questions as to where he'll be coaching after his imminent departure.
The Russell Wilson / Colin Kaepernick debate, once one of the hottest conversational topics in sport's self-glorifying 24 hour x 75 channel news cycle, has wilted like an unwatered flower in the scorching heat of Kaepernick's flaccid collective career performance against the 'Hawks. How limp, exactly? Try a career line of 88-165 (53.3%), 970 yards (5.9 YPA), 3 TDs, 9 INTs, a 54.3 rating, and one win in six tries. The quarterback that the 49ers just signed to a $126 million contract with $61 million guaranteed is a less than replacement-level player against his most important opponent. Wilson, meanwhile, has gone 65-111 (58.6%), 916 yards (8.3 YPA), 8 TDs, 4 INTs, a 94.3 rating, and a 5-1 record against the Niners, in addition to a Super Bowl -- all part of a fledgling career that's seen him win more games in his first three years than any QB in NFL history.
The Seahawks have three more double-digit wins vs the Niners in the last six matchups (4) than the 49ers have wins (1). The geographical relationship (San Francisco is closest NFL city to Seattle), coaching history, and recent success (teams have a combined 68 wins over the last three years) haven't changed, but the entire tenor of the rivalry has. It had teetered on the brink, what with the Seahawks winning by scores of 42-13, 29-3, 19-3, plus an NFC 'Ship win in the last three seasons, but today the coroner officially began writing his report.
So how did it happen? Well, not as directly as the rivalry's recent narrative would insinuate. In fact, for the first 40 minutes or so, the 49ers looked like the best football team on the field. After holding the high-powered Philadelphia Eagles to 139 total yards last week, the Seattle defense allowed the 49ers to steamroll their way to 178 first half yards, doing the vast majority of the damage between the tackles, taking Kaepernick and his myriad of Seahawk-induced mistakes, out of the equation. They gashed Seattle's elite run defense for three first half runs of over 20 yards, all by different players. They challenged Richard Sherman, completing the first five passes thrown his way. They gained plus-yardage on first down and converted on third. The Niners moved the ball like it was their right to do so, scoring an early touchdown on a 10 yard Frank Gore run while the defense held the Seahawks to as many points on their first five drives (3) as punts. The 'Hawks D, however, did a fabulous job of adjustment in the second half, holding the Niners to four (!) yards in the third quarter and 67 total in the second half*.
*That makes three of the last four halves in which Seahawks opponents have failed to gain 70 yards.
The Seahawks offense never really clicked but then again, they never really needed to. It would be awesome and encouraging if the 'Hawks came out and scored 40 points in a blowout win but the Niners that they played today did not just roll over and accept their beating. Every one of Seattle's 290 yards came at a premium, as the team staked out 4.8 yards per play -- 4.8 per run (good!), 4.8 per pass (bad!). The invertebrate 49ers team that let the Seahawks waltz through their front door on Thanksgiving, loot their house, and kiss their wife right in front of them, and then let the got dang Oakland Raiders do the same thing through the back door a week later was not the same squad that ran out of the visitors' tunnel at the CLink today. The Niners that the Seahawks played on Sunday weren't the ones that got blown out by a combined 71-16 over a two game stretch vs Seattle in 2012-'13, these were the ones that pushed them to the very brink in this exact stadium last January in the now-famous NFC Championship game. The 49ers defense and running game that showed up today were, for a half at least, the ones that had the rest of the NFL adjusting to them just a couple seasons ago.
And the Seahawks still beat them by two scores.
It truly was a story of two halves, with San Francisco controlling the ball, the clock, and the flow of the game for the first thirty minutes, doing everything right except scoring more touchdowns. The Niners averaged 56 yards per drive in the first half and were on the verge of scoring again late in the second before the number one defense in the NFL reared up on it's hind legs and knocked the 49ers back on three consecutive plays, taking them out of striking and field goal range, and setting a new expectation for the remainder of the game.
From that point on, the Niners were as potent as a three-day-old can of Schmidt's, going from 181 yards on their first 24 plays (7.5 per) to 64 on their last 33 (1.9 per). The Seahawks, meanwhile, woke from their offensive slumber like a student that overslept a final, transforming from a pack of feral chipmunks into an efficient strike force and turning consecutive possessions into touchdowns -- one on a draw play to Marshawn Lynch from four yards out and one on Paul Richardson's first career teeder, a 10 yard pass that came on the heels of a dubious-at-best, drive-extending personal foul against San Fran's Nick Moody on a third down incompletion. And while the criticism against the penalty is entirely valid, bad calls go both ways, as we've all seen, and bad calls in your favor only matter if you make them count.
In a matter of instants, an uneasy 7-3 deficit became a 17-7 advantage. With a two-score lead, the Seahawks became 53 pine trees leaning against an aging building with a shaky foundation. It was only a matter of time before the 49ers' house fell over and they were left searching through the rubble, mourning what might have been and uncertain of their insurance situaish. It was a game short on highlight reel spectacle and long on blunt force trauma -- exactly the kind of game the Seahawks are comfortable playing. The majority of the fourth quarter felt more formal than apprehensive, as Seattle locked in a deep arm bar late in the match and held on until the ref called it, sending them to 10-4 and further improving their playoff position.
The win, coupled with the Packers loss, ties Seattle with Green Bay, Detroit, and Dallas for the second best record in the NFL with the only team ahead of them next on their schedule. There are a myriad of potential complications between now and a fortnight from now but the path to home field advantage in Seattle just got a whole lot sunnier.
Some other stuff:
-The last eight teams to play Seattle have lost their next game. The odds against that, in a vacuum, are 256/1. The Seahawks hangover is real.
-Bobby Wagner continues to play as well as any Seahawks defender since Cortez Kennedy. I mean that. For all the (well-deserved) press that the L.O.B. gets, it's Wagner that takes this unit from good to best in the world. This season, the difference between a defense with Bobby Wagner (13.7 PPG allowed) and a defense without him @22 PPG allowed) is 8.3 points per game. A sack, a pass break-up, and two TFLs adorned his team-leading 10 tackles today. He also inadvertently knocked Gore out of the game with a concussion when Gore went to block him downfield. It was like he ran face first into a parked truck.
-Earl Thomas continues to trod the earth in a manner more ferocious and noble than anything we could ever attain to. Nine tackles and a shit-ton of tone setting from the Legion's hawk-eyed safety. Watching him play is a gift, a glimpse into a world more perfect than our own. He is as close to ubiquitous as a defensive player gets.
-Richard Sherman was human enough to allow a number of receptions but none of them were particularly consequential. Statistically, it may have been his worst game, which just underscores how good he's been. Still zero TDs allowed on the season for the bombastic corner. His personal rival Michael Crabtree, who refuses to give credit to the cornerback that has shut him down so completely over the past few seasons, finished with a measly 19 yards on three receptions, giving him six grabs for 29 total yards in the teams' two skirmishes.
-The defensive line was sensational in this one. Kevin Williams and emerging standout Jordan Hill combined for 4 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. Michael Bennett was a terror, adding two TFLs and a ton of re-directing penetration. All told, Seattle logged a season-high six sacks and 11 tackles for loss. It was a terrific, all-encompassing defensive performance.
-K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin were splendid, each recording five tackles and a sack. The defense is without a weakness right now. No inexperienced linemen getting blown off their spots, no linebackers making the wrong reads, no defensive backs that can't stay with a double move. Just lockdown defense everywhere you look.
-Russell Wilson was not at his best today but the nice thing about having a quote-unquote game-manager is that he knows how manage his off days. Outside of a nigh-unforgivable interception in field goal range right before the half, he picked his spots to the tune of 168 yards and a TD, adding 29 yards on three non-kneel-down carries. Like I said earlier, not a ton of highlight material, just winning football. It wasn't the type of performance that will thrust Wilson to the front of the MVP discussion but there's something to be said about having a QB that never goes out and loses a game for his team. 38 wins and counting for Russ, with 2-6 games left to play in his third season.
-Marshawn Lynch was the battering ram that finally felled the Niners' gates. Lynch strode across the CLink's turf like a mighty man of valor, shrugging off tacklers like they were overcoats in a heated room. Ninety-eight yards from scrimmage on 22 touches for the man who gives Seattle's offense their identity.
-Jermaine Kearse may have had his best game of the season, turning six targets into a team-leading five catches for 78 yards. His routes looked decisive and he competed for passes with conviction. It was the type of performance that earns a QB's trust.
-Doug Baldwin's statistical impact (three catches for 53 yards on six targets) may seem a tad underwhelming but those 53 yards were all kinds of impressive given the unwelcome passing circumstances provided by both defenses. He remains Wilson's first and best look.
-Seattle converted eight of 14 third downs. In a game where ball control was of the utmost import, the Seahawks were exceptional at keeping it in their hands.
-The Seahawks got three first downs as a result of Niners penalties. That's the kind of stuff that has driven all of us crazy all season, so it was nice to be reminded that other teams screw up that way too. All told, the penalties were pretty even (SF: 8-78, SEA: 7-50) and while the 'Hawks still committed a maddening number of pre-snap faults, it's great to see them not account for 70+% of the infractions.
This may have been the worst game the Seahawks have played in a month and they still won by 10. The offense rarely clicked, the defense gave up some uncharacteristically big runs, and Seattle never forced a turnover. They still won by 10. (Almost) any team can win when everything is firing on all of the proverbial cylinders but it's a special type of talent to win when you're off your game. This team can win another Super Bowl and this weekend was a big step closer to that goal. Next week's matchup against the NFL-leading Arizona Cardinals will be an even bigger one. Onward and upward.