SAN FRANCISCO — It was all there for the Seahawks on Sunday — a chance to win the division title on the home turf of the defending champs (and their most heated rival) and send a message that the balance of power in the NFC West had changed for good.
But then, just like 49ers running back Frank Gore, it slipped away.
Gore’s 51-yard dash set up Phil Dawson’s 22-yard field goal with 26 seconds left that gave the 49ers a 19-17 win over the Seahawks at Candlestick Park on Sunday. The loss ended a seven-game Seattle winning streak and dropped the Seahawks to 11-2 while the 49ers improved to 9-4.
“The game came right to us,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll. “We had a chance and we just let them get out with the big run and that was it. It was a one-play deal as it came down to it.”
While the Seahawks were, as receiver Doug Baldwin said, “extremely disappointed,” they said they realized everything remains out there for them.
“We would have loved to get the win, but it doesn’t change anything for us,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. Indeed, Seattle still needs to win two of its last three games to take not only the NFC West but home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
“I didn’t feel like the season was going to end one way or another today,” Carroll said. “And it’s not.”
In fact, some of the Seahawks said that the result might in a way be good for a team that has already clinched a playoff berth and hadn’t really played a close game since beating Tampa Bay in overtime on Nov. 3, and hadn’t lost since a 34-28 defeat at Indianapolis on Oct. 6.
“Not that we were cocky in any way, but being able to face this adversity is only going to help us further down the line when we are in the playoffs because we are probably going to have a game like this coming up shortly,” Baldwin said. “It’s going to build character. We haven’t had a tough game in recent weeks.”
The specific lesson Sunday concerned penalties, a seasonlong bugaboo that reared its head a bit too often against the 49ers. Seattle had nine penalties for 85 yards, two of which gave the 49ers first downs on drives on which they later scored.
“We expected to blow them out, but they got the benefit of a few calls throughout the game,” Sherman said.
Seattle came into the day averaging eight penalties per game, Baldwin noting that “we are good enough to overcome the penalties that we had. But we are also good enough to not have those penalties. When you are playing a team like the San Francisco 49ers, you can’t have those mistakes.”
Otherwise, Carroll said the game was largely what he expected it would be — a “good, hard-fought game. Kind of a slugfest is what it felt like.”
Indeed, the game featured six lead changes as each team struggled to gain the upper hand. In that regard, it was completely different from the last two meetings in Seattle, won by the Seahawks by a combined score of 71-16.
Baldwin felt that the 49ers — who were playing with a little more desperation with a playoff spot still not secured — came out “with a little bit more energy than we had in the first quarter.”
Two Dawson field goals gave the 49ers a 6-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Seattle, though, responded with touchdown drives of 80 and 72 yards to take a 14-9 lead late in the quarter after Dawson hit another field goal. The touchdowns came via an 11-yard Marshawn Lynch run and a 39-yard pass from Russell Wilson to rookie tight end Luke Willson.
The 49ers, though, scored their lone touchdown with six seconds left in the half on an 8-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick to Vernon Davis to take a 16-14 halftime lead.
There was no more scoring until a 31-yard Steven Hauschka field goal, set up by a 38-yard punt return by Golden Tate, put Seattle ahead 17-16 with 6:20 left.
But after one 49ers first down, Gore took a handoff to the left and then cut back into the open before falling down at the Seattle 18.
“We just got outplayed on the play,” Carroll said. “They blocked us really nicely and they took advantage of it.”
One more first down, on a Kaepernick 8-yard run on third-and-seven, allowed the 49ers to run down the clock before Dawson’s field goal. Carroll said he debated letting the 49ers score so Seattle would be assured of some time left on the clock to try to win or tie it.
Seattle, instead, was in desperation mode when it got the ball back with 21 seconds left, and a deep Wilson pass was intercepted by Eric Wright to end the game.
The season, though, moves on quickly with a trip next week to play the Giants.
“We are still in a great position like we want to be,” said safety Earl Thomas. “We are just going to move on.”