Special teams had been so much of the 49ers' success. Then Heath Farwell ended that feeling with one block of an Andy Lee punt. And just like that, a game that seemed to be pretty much in control of the San Francisco 49ers suddenly lurched in the control of the Seattle Seahawks.
The second half had been almost a complete reversal of the first. In the first two quarters, Seattle looked strong and consistent in building a 10-3 lead.
Then the Niners emerged stronger and better in the second half. A long pass to Michael Crabtree ignited a 75-yard drive, capped by a four-yard Frank Gore TD run in the third quarter. Just like that, the game was level—and so were the 49ers’ hopes.
Right there it transformed into a 49er game—score, deep kick and good coverage, bad field position for the opponent. Work a few more first downs and score again. Granted, it was field goals, but it was scores, and it was working to perfection midway in the fourth quarter.
Then Heath Farwell came close to becoming a name that could come back to haunt the 49ers. Farwell blocked Lee’s punt, setting up a four-yard TD drive that gave the Seahawks a 17-16 lead with less than seven minutes left.
The Seattle crowd, the loudest outdoor crowd in the country, was in full throat. The ‘Hawk defense was fired up.
The entire 49ers season seemed ready to pop. Sure, they’re in the playoffs, but having that first-week bye seemed to be slipping away. And with that the idea of what the 49ers have become, namely a tough, make-no-mistakes football team that would be a very formidable opponent in the playoffs.
The Niners came away with a 19-17 victory, and with that we learned five very important elements of the 49ers in San Francisco’s win over Seattle.
“It makes you feel like a man,” said coach Jim Harbaugh in the post-game interview broadcast on Comcast Sports.
The drive started at the 38, thanks to a penalty-hit on return man Kyle Williams by former 49er Michael Robinson. And that good field position evaporated immediately when Braylon Edwards was called for offensive pass interference.
A run went nowhere. It was 2nd-and-18 on the 49ers 31, and the game was on the line. Alex Smith dropped back and sent a pass deep on the left sideline. It was a play we hadn’t seen all game. The Seahawks were loading up the middle, playing run first and leaving the corners in one-on-one coverage.
There were times late in the game when that defensive front seemed ready for a shot down the field, but Harbaugh played it conservatively. But on 2nd-and-18, Smith cut loose. Brendan Browner, Seattle’s cornerback, had good coverage, but receiver Crabtree (15) had a step on Browner. The throw was high and Crabtree went up and go the ball.
The 42-yard completion put the ball inside Seattle’s 25, and that set up David Akers’ 39-yard field goal that proved to be the game-winner.
Here’s another reason why Harbaugh is Coach of the Year. It’s his task to put together a staff, and it is the staff that comes up with the solutions during the game to adjust a team’s attack and adapt to the conditions needed to win the game.
The eight-play, 75-yard drive that included a clutch 4th-and-3 completion from Smith to Vernon Davis set up Gore (21). The 49ers weren’t intimidated. Another catch by Davis set up the Niners inside the five, and Frank Gore capped it.
Then here were the next four starting points for Seattle after David Akers’ kickoffs: 15-13-15-18. In all of those drives, the Seahawks only managed three first downs all game. The lone score came in the second half on a four-yard drive following the blocked Lee punt.
And the Niners in the first four second-half possessions dominated the clock. When Akers hit his third field goal with more than 12 minutes left, they had about 15 minutes of possession compared to four for the ‘Hawks.
Seattle took an early 7-0 lead and seemed to have complete control. Blowout seemed well within the possible. But over the next 40 minutes or so, the 49ers outscored the Seahawks 16-3. Commendable.
The field position changes slowed the Seattle offense. After Marshawn Lynch gained 83 yards on 14 carries in the first half, the 49ers offense shut him down. That’s not a typo. The best way to ice the player who has been the game’s best runner over the last 10 weeks is to keep him on the sideline.
Great kick coverage combined with a strong return play by 49ers' Kyle Williams enabled the 49ers to maintain some momentum. The crowd couldn’t dominate the snap count. Add in David Akers’ four field goals, which gave him an NFL record, accounted for a second-half that found Lynch on the sideline way too much.
In the second half, Lynch had 19 yards on seven carries. Better offense that led to scores followed by advantageous field position accounted for the shift in momentum.
Take away the blocked punt (pictured) and this game ends rather undramatically, I feel. That they had to rally again is a testament to the 49ers. And after Akers’ fourth FG put the Niners up 19-17, the kick coverage kept the Hawks pinned inside their 20.
Aside from Akers’ NFL record for field goals, of which most 49ers fans feel somewhat dubious, several notable team marks fell.
It was the first time in 36 games, dating back to November 2009, that the Niners had given up 100 yards to a rusher. Lynch got it on his four-yard TD in the fourth quarter. And that was the first rushing TD allowed by the 49ers all year. Aldon Smith is a half-sack away from setting a record for NFL rookies.
To which the 49ers response to both is: sniff. Who won?
What’s more telling is that Harbaugh played it very conservatively late, often running on 2nd- and 3rd-and-long to run down the clock and reduce the chance for a turnover. It was also a statement, as loud and as obvious as if he stood on a podium with a bullhorn in his hand. His message:
“I’ll let my defense win it.” And they did, thanks to Larry Grant’s forced fumble on a scrambling Tarvaris Jackson.
Injuries have started to add up. They lost Delanie Walker early in the game to what at least appears to be a concussion or perhaps a broken jaw (that’s what happens when you get kneed in the head).
Kyle Williams’ getting sandwiched on the fourth-quarter kick return isn’t the type of play that begets coming back right away. And not only does that hurt the return game, in which Williams was first-rate vs. Seattle, but brings Braylon Edwards into a more crucial role.
And right now it seems Edwards is lucky if he remembers the plays. He had a crucial illegal block and an offensive pass interference call against him, mistakes that are crucial against a team that has very little room for error on offense.
But here are the obvious things:
Smith (14 of 26 for 179 yards) finished the game with a 75.6 rating, and yet he was so much better than Tarvaris Jackson (15-28, 163, 82.9) could ever be. The critics who wanted Smith (11) out of San Francisco have to admit they were wrong. In person. On Facebook. Their grave markers. You get the idea.
Smith made plays off a botched snap, provided a key first down on a huge third-quarter scramble, and made a first down on a 4th-and-inches sneak and a nice throw to Vernon Davis on 4th-and-3.
And he made the right throw to Crabtree, which I am now calling The Heave. It provided the chance for Akers to win it, and the Niners now have the compelling game in St. Louis for the chance to rest, heal and await an opponent in the playoffs.
The defense had to win it, and they did. It wasn’t going to be easy in Seattle, and it came down to having to get a stop after Akers’ field goal with just less than three minutes to go. After Jackson got a swing pass to Lynch that put Seattle near midfield, a blitzing Larry Grant hunted down the Seattle QB and forced the fumble.
That last play was the stake into Seattle’s heart.
It was a game that proved the toughness of the 49ers, a game that might have been the most physical, most dramatic of the season. And they won it like a man.