By Danny O'Neil
SAN FRANCISCO – Seattle's second loss of the season wasn't decided by a field goal.
The 49ers' 22-yard chip shot of a kick may have accounted for the final margin of the Seahawks' 19-17 loss, but it wasn't the difference in this game.
That would be the 85 yards of penalties against Seattle, including 45 in the third quarter alone, and the punt the Seahawks had blocked in the first half. And more than anything, this game came down the fact that Seattle's offense couldn't turn impossibly good field position into anything more than a field goal in the fourth quarter while its defense picked the worst possible moment to allow its longest run of the year.
This game wasn't a heartbreaker nearly so much as a reminder of both how thin the margin between victory and defeat so often is in the NFL and the type of games Seattle can expect going forward.
"They're a really good football team," coach Pete Carroll said. "They called for you to play great to beat them."
And Seattle didn't play great. Not on Sunday at Candlestick Park. They had their moments, Russell Wilson efficiently guiding the offense on a pair of first-half touchdown drives and posting a passer rating of higher than 140 in the first half. The defense was resilient, forcing San Francisco to settle for three field goals in the first half and then cornerback Byron Maxwell intercepting a pass near the goal line to unplug a 49ers scoring threat in the third quarter.
But that wasn't enough on an afternoon when the 49ers dug in their heels and made the kind of home-field stand you'd expect from a team that had won the division the past two seasons and played for the Super Bowl a year ago.
"It was kind of just a slugfest," Carroll said. "That's what it felt like."
And for the first time this season, the Seahawks were the ones trying to shake out the cob webs after the game. After three straight blowout victories – including a Monday-night showcase against New Orleans – this was a reality check.
"You win some, you learn some," receiver Doug Baldwin said afterward.
Consider this a lesson on the importance of penalties, which has been a problem for this team for three years running. So as much as you might want to complain, you can't say it came out of nowhere.
Same for the punt Seattle had blocked. The 49ers blocked one against Seattle in the Week 2 meeting.
And for the scoring chance Seattle wasted when Tate's punt return set up Seattle inside the San Francisco 30 in the fourth quarter and the Seahawks couldn't more than a single first down before kicking the go-ahead field goal.
All of that added up to leave the Seahawks vulnerable to a single defensive lapse, because for more than 50 minutes on Sunday, Seattle had kept the 49ers' power running game in check.
The Seahawks didn't allow a run longer than 9 yards in the first half, and Frank Gore had only 50 yards rushing entering what turned out to be the 49ers' game-winning drive. In fact, Seattle was one play from getting off the field only to let San Francisco convert a third-and-short with a run to Bruce Miller and then on the next play hand it to Gore, who ran 51 yards. It was the longest run Seattle had given up this season and it set up San Francisco for the game-winning field goal.
|• Recap | Stats | Photos | Postgame interviews||• O'Neil: What We Learned||• O'Neil: Should Seahawks have let 49ers score?||• 'The Pete Carroll Show': Wright to have surgery||• Henderson: Late-game lapse dooms Seahawks||• Henderson: Seahawks' penalties loom large|
"We're not worried about anything," Sherman said. "Obviously, we'd love to get the win, but it doesn't really change anything for us."
That's one way of looking at it, and it's not necessarily wrong. If Seattle wins two of its final three games, the Seahawks will clinch both the division title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and this loss in San Francisco won't mean anything.
But on the other hand, it was a reminder that the gap between Seattle and the rest of the conference might not be the 20-plus-point victories the Seahawks had grown accustomed to as they reeled off wins against Atlanta, Minnesota and New Orleans.
There were six lead changes Sunday in a game that didn't make you question everything Seattle has accomplished so far this season, but did serve as a pretty powerful reminder that the Seahawks' success so far doesn't guarantee them anything but the opportunity to play in more bare-knuckle bouts against playoff-caliber opponents like Sunday.
"Being able to face this adversity is only going to be able to help us further down the line when we get into the playoffs," Baldwin said," because we're probably going to have a game like this coming up here shortly. So it's going to build character. We haven't had a tough one in recent weeks ... and I think the only positive we can take out of this is it's going to make stronger for later down the line."