By Morris Phillips
After snarling at the officials, exhorting his team, and stalking the sidelines on a bitterly cold afternoon with a constant grimace on his face, 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh wasn’t about to declare the experience of besting the Seahawks, 19-17, an enjoyable one.
“Enjoy it? That’s not the word I would use,” Harbaugh said. “It feels like you go to the dentist chair and three-and-a-half hours of getting root canal work done.”
Now that Harbaugh’s found a better place, the nicked up players in both team’s training rooms have been cleared, and the game of the season—so far—has been played, we assess:
For the Seahawks, a bump in the road, and for the 49ers, a win in a game that they had to have in advance of bigger games that they have to have with all but one of them most likely to be played away from Candlestick Park.
Phil Dawson’s 22-yard field goal with 26 seconds remaining capped a carefully-orchestrated final drive and allowed the 49ers to overcome Seattle’s one-point lead and keep the drama in the NFC West alive for at least one more week. The 49ers (9-4) trail the division and conference-leading Seahawks by two games with three to play.
If the task of catching Seattle seems daunting, that’s because it is. The Seahawks travel to New York next week to face the 5-8 Giants before finishing at home against the Rams and Cardinals. The 49ers get the rejuvenated Bucs—winners of four of five—before the finale at Candlestick against the Falcons and a season-ending trip to Arizona to face the Cardinals. If the 49ers can’t catch the Seahawks, they would open the playoffs on the road as the fifth or sixth seed. If they win there, road games at New Orleans and at Seattle could be next.
“We don’t feel like we’ve put it all together just yet,” Anquan Boldin said after the game. “I do feel like we are getting better each week and we’ll continue to strive to get better. Hopefully, you guys will see us play that complete game coming soon.”
On a day of touchdowns in the NFL—85 were scored in the afternoon games- the 49ers found themselves in a tight ballgame attempting to survive on just one touchdown, nursing a 16-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Then Seattle’s Golden Tate set up the Seahawks with his 38-yard punt return. Six plays later, Russell Wilson faced a 3rd and 8 at the 49ers’ 13-yard line. With his initial target blanketed, he scrambled left with room to run or pass. But with Jerome Kearse having a step on his guy at the goal line, Wilson played it safe, sailing one past Kearse out of bounds.
“Try to make the smart decision, too, to not force anything. We have a field goal and it will give us the lead. So that was kind of the decision there,” Wilson said.
Just like Colin Kaepernick, Wilson was having a tough afternoon. Lacking talented deep threats in the absence of injured Percy Harvin, Wilson would go without a completion of a pass thrown more than 10 yards downfield to a wide receiver. The second-year starter earlier threw a well-executed play-action pass to tight end Luke Willson that went for a 39-yard touchdown and a 14-9 Seattle lead. But on this day, the Seahawks’ offense started slow and finished dull as the 49ers’ defense was up to the task unlike the last two trips to Century Link Field in Seattle.
“That’s a very tough offense,” Harbaugh said. “Their run game and just their weapons and the way the quarterback moves around, it’s tough to contain. To hold them to 17 points is really a great accomplishment.”
With the 49ers trailing by one, Kaepernick found himself on the spot, having lost to Seattle in his only other appearances and needing to engineer a game-winning drive. But he did, while throwing just one pass in an 11-play drive. The key was a Frank Gore run through an interior gap that the veteran broke for 51 yards and the presence of mind to stay in bounds at its conclusion. The same type of Gore runs had keyed the 49ers’ second half surge in last season’s home win over the Seahawks, 13-6.
“(Offensive coordinator Greg Roman) G-Ro had been saving that call in his back pocket and picked the exact right time to call it,” Harbaugh said.
“We just got out played on that play,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They blocked us really nicely and they took advantage of it.”
Three plays later it was Kaepernick’s turn: his 7-yard run on third down surprised in what appeared to be a pass-situation, and picked up a critical first down at the Seattle 8-yard line. After two more plays and a couple of timeouts, Dawson added his game-winner.
It was Dawson’s 20th consecutive made field goal, setting a team franchise record.
“I think we showed championship effort,” Donte Whitner said. “I think everybody around the country knows who the 49ers are now. But that was a championship football game in a playoff atmosphere and we just made a few more plays than they made.”
“Penalties hurt us, really got us off schedule,” Carroll said, referencing nine penalties that erased 85 yards.
But that was about as far and as upset as Carroll would get. A big game no doubt, but afterwards just one of 13 in the rear-view mirror.
“All of our goals are still in front of us,” Carroll said.