SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Last October, the San Francisco 49ers were all alone in first place and already on their way to winning the NFC West title in commanding fashion in coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season.
That’s hardly the case this year as they prepare for their division opener at home tonight against the Seattle Seahawks: There’s a three-way tie at the top among 4-2 teams Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle.
“Everybody in our division got better,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said. “That’s OK, we’re all right with that. We like it like that. We like it tough. We’re tough enough to handle it.”
After riding high for two weeks after consecutive blowout victories against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, the 49ers had little time to figure out all that went wrong in a 26-3 loss Sunday to the reigning Super Bowl champion Giants at Candlestick Park.
“You’ve just got to go,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve got to go right away.”
Seattle fullback Michael Robinson describes it this way: “Go get in a car accident and then try to play two days later. That’s how it feels.”
These teams — the last two division winners — faced off in Weeks 1 and 16 last year, with the 49ers eliminating the Seahawks from postseason contention with a 19-17 road win on Dec. 24. That was the 49ers’ first win in Seattle since 2008.
And Harbaugh certainly has had his way against Seattle coach Pete Carroll of late, winning the last four meetings dating back to that surprising 55-21 rout by No. 25 Stanford against Carroll’s 11th-ranked Southern California team in 2009.
The Cardinal even attempted a 2-point conversion with the game way out of reach — prompting Carroll’s infamous “What’s your deal?” when the coaching rivals met afterward at midfield.
Any ill will seems long gone for these two.
Carroll believes his Seahawks should be undefeated.
“Because of our lack of effectiveness last year, we stepped up and went about it differently this year,” Carroll said. “Last year by our assessment there were six games that we could’ve won and we didn’t win any of them. This year we have been in five and won three.”
While San Francisco escaped with a narrow win at Seattle in December, the 49ers can find plenty of motivation from that game 10 months later.
Tight end Delanie Walker broke his jaw in two places when he took a knee to the face from Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill in the first quarter and didn’t return until the NFC championship game.
NFC rushing leader Marshawn Lynch ran for 107 yards as San Francisco’s defense had its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher end at 36 games, going back to Green Bay’s Ryan Grant in Week 11 of the 2009 season. Lynch’s 4-yard TD run in the fourth quarter also was the first TD rushing allowed by the 49ers all season.
But Lynch is coming off a 41-yard showing last weekend.
“I used to think about all that and get tied up in all that,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. “We still take pride in our run game. It’s the National Football League, and sometimes guys are going to have those days. Once again, it’s a challenge for us to go out there this Thursday and try to stop one of the best running backs in this game.”
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson is making quite a name for himself, too. He threw two late touchdown passes as the Seahawks rallied for 14 points over the final 7:31 to stun the New England Patriots 24-23 in Seattle on Sunday.
It was Wilson’s best outing yet — 16 of 27 for 293 yards — while 49ers quarterback Alex Smith against the Giants looked nothing like the guy who a week earlier had a record-setting day as San Francisco piled up 621 yards in a 45-3 rout of the Bills.
Smith was sacked four times.
“We hurt ourselves last week,” Gore said.
Seattle’s swarming defense will need a much better effort to slow down Smith, Gore and Vernon Davis.
Seattle gave up a season-high 475 yards after not allowing any of their first five opponents to top 300. The Patriots went eight straight drives without punting, and ran 85 offensive plays.
“We know they’re going to come in here and play their behind off,” Gore said. “As long as we get back to being us — offense, defense, special teams — we should come out on top.”
The way the schedule worked out, Seattle will be done with its road divisional games after Thursday night.
Yet Seattle’s Hill, for one, insists this game doesn’t have any more significance.
“We’re both 4-2, it’s a Thursday night game. A lot of people can boost it up how they want to boost it up,” Hill said. “As we win, as they win, the games get bigger from the outside looking in.”
Wilson understands — even if this will be his first experience in this rivalry.
“Ever since landed here in Seattle everybody kind of talks about the NFC West and how big this game is,” Wilson said. “I can’t wait.”