My column from Sunday’s game. It’ll go into Monday afternoon’s paper, but I wanted to get it out here a little earlier…
SEATTLE — The spirit of giving was in full display on Sunday.
Seattle allowed its visitors the entire first quarter to take over the game, but San Francisco returned the favor with timely turnovers and misplays to give the game and the victory back to the hosts.
The last gift by the 49ers gave the Seahawks the ball late, when Olindo Mare’s 18th consecutive field goal punctuated Seattle’s 20-17 victory over San Francisco in a pivotal NFC West showdown at Qwest Field.
It was enough to make one head coach smile and another grouse about what could have been.
“It feels good to win a close game at the end against a good football team,” Seahawks head coach Jim Mora said. “We hung in there and found a way to win it in the end.”
“Today, we found a way to screw it up,” 49ers head coach Mike Singletary said. “In every situation, we found a way to screw it up. Championship teams don’t do that. There were questionable calls, but I’m not going to go there. The refs didn’t fumble the ball, didn’t miss tackles and didn’t make the plays. We could have overcome those mistakes and won the game.”
A Frank Gore fumble allowed Seattle to march back down for a 17-14 lead on Mare’s 25-yard field goal with 9 minute left in the game. But just as the Niners tied the game following a Seahawk touchdown in the second quarter, San Francisco got a gift to help set up a tying field goal.
A pass interference call — one of the few flagged — on Marcus Trufant set up Joe Nedney’s 34-yard field goal with 2:51 remaining.
The Seahawks stalled at midfield, then the Niners gave them the ball back with 21 seconds left after an ill-timed 3-and-out — three straight incomplete passes — with less than a minute left. It was an inglorious end to a career day by quarterback Alex Smith, who finished with 310 yards on 27-of-45 attempts and two touchdowns.
On a side note, Gore only had the ball for nine carries and the Niners, who turned themselves into a balanced running team under Singletary, had just 12 carries total.
“Interestingly enough, they didn’t attempt to run the ball,” added Mora. “They moved a little bit away from the power running game that they were early. They’ve had success in doing so. The development of Alex Smith, I think it’s evident. It’s not smoke and mirrors, he’s becoming a very good football player.”
Two plays after the 3-and-out, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hit rookie wide receiver Deon Butler on a 34-yard pass play down the sideline to the Niners’ 15-yard line. Butler got enough of a push on reserve cornerback Keith Smith for separation to make the catch.
Mare’s game-winning kick soon followed.
“Yeah, I saw (the push),” barked Singletary, when asked about the Butler pass play. “It was right in front of me, but I’m not going to get into that.”
“It was a moment of truth play (to Butler),” Hasselbeck said. “We usually don’t get second chances to win, but we did this time.”
San Francisco laid claim to the first quarter, limiting Seattle to just 7 yards of offense. However, two unsuccessful pass plays at the Seahawks’ 1-yard line — including a fourth-down pass play that exemplified a pass interference penalty, but wasn’t called — and a botched punt-return reverse kept the Niners from taking advantage.
Seattle could have been down by two, maybe three touchdowns at the end of the first quarter. That’s why a 7-7 tie to start the second quarter was a gift to the Seahawks.
The gift the teams gave to the fans, all 67,761 of them who braved an Arctic cold storm, was one they’ll return every time came in the third quarter — a seven-punt display, with both teams combining for 81 yards and just two first downs.
The seven came in the middle of 12 successive possessions ended on punts by both teams, which Gore’s fumble early in the fourth quarter snapped.
“A lot of 3-and-outs for us today, frustrating,” Hasselbeck said. “Every time you looked at the scoreboard, we were always in it. (The playoffs are) what we’re still playing for. The way to do it, though, is one game at a time … just doing all the things we said before the season is so important.”
The playoffs? That will be the biggest surprise gift of all from the Seahawks.
A quick add: Seattle’s win kept it mathematically in the playoff race at 5-7, along with San Francisco, Chicago and Carolina. Thus, the Seahawks will have to win out – a seven-game winning streak total – and get some help to get into the postseason. Stranger things have happened, but I don’t see it. The most logical spot for either Seattle or San Francisco is the NFC West title, but both teams are now three games back with five to play. The Niners still have to play the Cardinals, but Arizona technically needs just one win the clinch the division title.