SAN FRANCISCO -- In a span of days the Seahawks had traveled from one end of the competitive spectrum to the other. They had romped over the highly regarded Saints on a Monday night at home, then lost a heartbreaker to the 49ers six days later in Candlestick Park, ending their seven-game win streak and giving a psychological pick-me-up to their bitter division rivals.
The defeat didn't significantly hurt the Seahawks' chances of claiming homefield advantage throughout the playoffs -- they have a one-game lead over New Orleans with three to play and hold the tiebreaker over the Saints -- but it did raise the question of which was more beneficial to them at this point: an easy win or a tough loss.
"We definitely learn more in this situation," wideout Doug Baldwin said after the 19-17 loss at San Francisco. "We haven't had a game like this in recent weeks. That's only going to benefit us down the line when we get to the playoffs, because it's not going to be easy. To be able to face this type of adversity and learn from it, to be able to go back and look at our mistakes so that when we're in this situation again we can correct them on the fly, will only benefit us."
If victory provides momentum, then defeat sharpens focus. That theme was echoed by Seahawks defenders in the game's aftermath. They had played well by most standards, but not their own. For instance, in the first half they had two penalties that contributed to 49ers scoring drives. On the first, cornerback Richard Sherman was called for holding on a 3rd-and-11 incompletion; the infraction resulted in a first down and later a field goal. Also, cornerback Byron Maxwell was called for holding on a 2nd-and-8 incompletion from the SF 30; the call produced a first down that helped lead to a touchdown.
But the low point for Seattle's No. 1-ranked defense was failing to preserve a one-point lead in the final six minutes, 20 seconds. The Seahawks pride themselves on making stops and closing out games. In the final 46 seconds of a 14-9 win at St. Louis, they stopped the Rams on four straight goal-to-go opportunities inside the 7, the final two from the 1. With just over five minutes remaining in a 12-7 win at Carolina, the defense forced a fumble deep inside the Seattle 10-yard line when the Panthers were driving for the go-ahead score. At Houston, Sherman's pick-six with 2:40 to go forced overtime and resulted in a 23-20 win.
But Sunday was different. The Seahawks allowed the 49ers, trailing by one, to control the ball for all but 26 seconds of the final 6:20. In that time San Francisco traveled 76 yards for the decisive 22-yard field goal thanks largely to Frank Gore getting free on a 51-yard run and QB Colin Kaepernick picking up 8 yards on 3rd-and-7 with just under three minutes to play and Seattle out of timeouts.
The Gore play was disappointing, though not totally surprising. The ninth-year pro has surpassed 100 yards rushing in four of his seven home games against the Seahawks. In those matchups he has had three runs of 50 yards or longer and is averaging 6.9 yards a carry overall.
"He's really been a needle in our side for as long as I can remember," said defensive end Red Bryant. "They had a perfect call against the particular defense we happened to be running. Coming out of the half we were shutting them down, shutting them down; we needed one more big stop to beat them. We felt like we had all the momentum and he just stepped on us. You've got to give a lot of credit to the play-caller and the offensive line, and you definitely have to give Frank a lot of credit for doing what he's been doing his whole career."
Although some may view the loss as a step back, the Seahawks (11-2) view it as a stepping stone. It was a reminder that failing to focus on the little things could result in a big loss.
Bryant: "That was a playoff-type game, and we definitely can learn a lot from it. We've got to be more disciplined. We can't give them anything in terms of penalties, and we have to pay attention to the details even more."
Safety Kam Chancellor: "The win over the Saints wasn't easy. We made it look easy because of us being on our keys, technique sound, studying film and knowing how they want to attack us. Today we had a lot of penalties. Pretty much all of the drives that they scored on, we had a penalty or a blocked punt. We had a few busts, too, but we learn from these mistakes."
The Seahawks are an extremely confident group. They got on a hot streak to end last season, winning their final five games by an aggregate 193-60. They appeared to be generating the same type of momentum this year, with the last three games in their seven-game win streak decided by an aggregate 108-46. They were soaring so high, so fast, that perhaps Sunday's defeat will keep them from becoming football's Icarus.
"This humbles us a little bit," Baldwin said. "I don't think we were getting cocky in any regard, but I think this is going to be good for us. Facing adversity is never a bad thing to me, especially in the game of football. The more you face, the better you are. You create a stronger team when you go through it. I'm actually excited about the future because I think we're going to be much better because of this."