Seahawks, Lynch keep the power on, sweep 49ers to ascend in playoff race
SEATTLE -- It's worth remembering that less than a month ago, the Seattle Seahawks were 6-4 and looking at almost certain elimination from the postseason if they didn't take care of business in the five-day stretch that had them welcoming the then-10-1 Arizona Cardinals to CenturyLink Field and traveling to the Bay Area to face the 49ers on Thanksgiving night. They beat those two teams by matching 19-3 scores, and then moved along to Philly's Lincoln Financial Field, where they made Chip Kelly's hot offense look rather pedestrian in a 24-14 win.
But of all the victories that have taken this team from nearly out of playoff contention to a very decent shot at the one-seed in the NFL for the second straight season, Sunday's 17-7 win over the 49ers may have been the most impressive. The 49ers, who ran for just 64 yards and gained 164 yards overall in their Thanksgiving night loss to Seattle, looked a lot more dangerous in this contest, especially out of the gate. Before injuries befell first-string back Frank Gore and second-string back Carlos Hyde, San Francisco looked how it had in previous years of the Jim Harbaugh era, running over any defense dumb enough to get in their way. In the first half alone this time around, San Francisco had 178 total yards and 104 on the ground, and it was beating Seattle's usually estimable defense into the ground with the power/counter/trap/wham plays you'd come to expect from this offense in the past, before it started to run off the rails this season.
Then, the second half started, and everything turned radically around. The 49ers got themselves clamped down by a defense that went with a different level of intensity, gaining just 67 yards total in the second half, and the Seahawks offense started to peck away at a 49ers' defensive unit that had played extremely well through the first 30 minutes.
More specifically, it was one player and one drive that moved things decidedly in Seattle's direction. The drive started at the Seattle 40-yard line with 7:40 left in the third quarter, and the player in question was running back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch finished the day with 91 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, but he gained 50 rushing yards and seven receiving yards on this drive, and ended things with a show-offy barely-walking-in touchdown.
"It means everything to us," receiver Doug Baldwin told me after the game of Lynch's efforts. "Marshawn is our engine. Without him, I don't know where we would be. He powers this team, and especially in situations like that when he needs that extra inch, he's gonna find a way to get it. He does that so often, it's kind of natural for us, but when you see some of the things he does, you're just in awe."
Pete Carroll, Lynch's head coach, seems no less awestruck.
"He's a unique football player, as well as a very unique person, which we all know," Carroll said. "He's got this tremendous competitiveness, and this great will. They love blocking for him, and seeing him do what he does. He's an extraordinary player, and we love what he brings to this football team."
Carroll also loved what the defense brought after those early lapses -- Seattle's defense has allowed less than a touchdown per game in that four-game stretch (6.75), and defensive lineman Michael Bennett has been a secret star as things have ascended. Bennett didn't factor in on any of the six times Colin Kaepernick was sacked, but he had two crucial tackles for loss, and he was getting in Kaepernick's face with regularity -- from just about every gap on the line.
"He's terrific," Carroll said of Bennett. "He's our penetrator. He's got a great feel for the game, and he knows when to take his chances within guidelines of the defense. He continues to make things happen. He's just real slippery, and that's because of his savvy and his willingness to go ahead and bank on what he's feeling and seeing. He's taken advantage of that for years in his career, and it's great to see him doing it now."
Here's something else the Seahawks can see: If they finish their season with wins over the Cardinals and the Rams, and the Cowboys lose any one of their last three games, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will go through the Emerald City once again. San Francisco saw what that road looked like last season, losing to Seattle in a closely-contested conference championship game. But with this loss, the 49ers were eliminated from postseason contention for the first time with Harbaugh as their head coach. For a man who has led his team to three consecutive conference championships and one close Super Bowl loss, it would be understandable for Harbaugh to feel that it was all for naught -- especially if the extensive rumors pushing him away from his current team come true.
As usual, Harbaugh was circumspect after the fact.
"We never give in," he said. "Keep fighting. Which our guys did today. I understand we’re eliminated from the playoffs ... today I thought we competed really well, I thought we had some really good drives, even with some poor field position."
That they did, but in the end, it wasn't enough. Especially for Kaepernick, who finished his day with 11 completions in 19 attempts for 141 yards, no touchdowns and those aforementioned six sacks. Kaepernick did his best to make it tough for Seattle on the ground, evading tackle after tackle and gaining 46 yards on the ground. When it's time for everyone in the 49ers' front office to review why and how things went wrong, the trend away from Kaepernick as a runner for certain stretches of time this season should be a major point of focus.
"I think it goes back to execution," he said. "There are games that we didn't execute and didn't finish like we should have. From the Chicago game, the Raiders game, those are two that pop out in my head. Finishing the Rams game is another one. That's three games right there where our record could be 10-4 instead of 7-7, and it's a big difference."
A big difference indeed, and judging from the volume of the table-beating going on in the press box area where the visiting 49ers scouts and executives were sitting, it's fair to say that nobody in the organization is too happy about things right now.
The Harbaugh-Carroll rivalry is one that has moved from the Pac-10 to the NFC West, and if this was the last game we'll see of the two of them coaching in the same division, well, at least it ended with a typically and fiercely fought finale.