Russell Wilson nearly did it again. With his team down by two scores for almost the entire game, with his patchwork offensive line featuring just two of the starters from the opening week of the season leaking pressure all night, and with his top two running backs and No. 1 tight end out for the season, Wilson damn near beat the 49ers anyway. In the end, he came up literally inches shy of pulling off the upset.
But that slow start, and the Seahawks' game-long lack of urgency to overcome it, ultimately proved too much for even Wilson -- the master of the miraculous fourth-quarter comeback -- to overcome. Seattle went down 10-0 before the end of the first quarter, and went into halftime down 13-0. The Seahawks looked cooked, and frankly were lucky to only be down by 13 points. At one point they were being outgained in yardage 220-60 but were still only down by two scores.
After halftime, the Seattle offense got itself back on track. Wilson repeatedly evaded rushers, buying time inside and outside the pocket to find D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett and rookie running back Travis Homer, who had an excellent game filling in for Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny. Wilson led three touchdown drives in the second half, but the issue with the first two was that they took entirely too long. Seattle's first two drives after halftime produced 14 points, but they took more than 15 minutes off the clock, and by the time they got the ball back for their third drive of the half, they were still down by two scores.
Even though the game looked over, Wilson led yet another touchdown drive, essentially doing it all by himself to bring his team back within five points. The Niners had a chance to put the game out of reach if they could just manage a couple of first downs, but a questionable unnecessary roughness call on center Ben Garland created a third-and-17, on which the Niners gained 16 yards and then decided to punt the ball back to Wilson instead of trying to win the game right then and there.
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That's when Wilson did what he does best. He marched his team right back down the field, making defensive linemen look silly as they pursued him in the pocket, only to get their hands on him just after he had delivered the ball. He found Metcalf and Lockett and Homer, and eventually he found rookie seventh-rounder John Ursua with an 11-yard pass on fourth-and-10 from the 12-yard line.
Just like that, the Seahawks were set up with first-and-goal from the 1, but the clock was winding down. And this is where things went haywire. Wilson hustled up to the line to spike the ball on first down, robbing the Seahawks of one of their four opportunities to take the lead. That became incredibly important because, before they could get off the second-down play from the 1-yard line, the Seahawks took a delay of game. Seriously. Suddenly, it was second-and-goal from the 6, and that extra down was looking a lot more crucial.
Wilson's first two passes fell incomplete, with the second looking like it could have or even should have drawn a pass interference call that never came. And so of course, the final game of the decade -- which was between one of the defining teams of the decade and the franchise that was its main rival at the start of its run -- all came down to one of the best players of the decade with one last chance to win on fourth-and-goal from the 6. Wilson found tight end Jacob Hollister for a completion, but rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw was right on the scene. He wrangled Hollister to the ground, forcing him down less than half a foot short of the end zone.
Game over. Regular season over. Niners win, 26-21, capturing the No. 1 seed in the NFC and relegating the Seahawks to the No. 5 seed and the wild card round.
Why the 49ers won
A hot start, and timely responses. San Francisco jumped out to a quick lead, staking out a double-digit advantage before the end of the first quarter. The defense was all over the Seahawks' rushing attack early in the game, providing Marshawn Lynch and Travis Homer with little room to run. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson had to scramble almost immediately at the top of every drop back, neutering the passing game as well.
When they had the ball, the Niners kept scheming receivers wide open for Jimmy Garoppolo, and Kyle Shanahan kept getting the ball into the hands of George Kittle and Deebo Samuel in new and inventive ways. San Francisco led 13-0 at the half, and the first two times Seattle got on the board after halftime, the Niners came right back with a score of their own. (More on this later.)
Oh, and the defense held on with that insane goal-line stand, with everyone from Emmanuel Moseley to Dre Greenlaw contributing with huge plays.
Why the Seahawks lost
The fast start for the 49ers was obviously also a slow start for the Seahawks. Seattle punted on each of its first three drives, gaining only 35 yards on 15 plays. The Seahawks finally moved the ball a bit on their fourth drive, but they turned it over on downs when they ran Lynch right up the gut out of a tight formation on fourth-and-1, and the 49ers stopped the play everyone in the stadium knew was coming.
By the time they got their offense going, it was almost too late. Their two second-half touchdown drives consisted of 25 total plays, and they took 15:37 off the game clock. The Seahawks played like a team that always felt it was only going to need one more score, when the way the 49ers offense was playing meant they were going to need two. Seattle did not have the urgency to match the moment.
By the time they got the ball needing only one score, there was not a ton of time left. They managed to drive the ball all the way down the field, but that lack of urgency reared its head again, as the Seahawks spiked the ball on first down rather than running a play, then took a fateful delay of game penalty on second down, which contributed to their falling mere inches short of winning the game.
It's pretty rare that the biggest play of any particular game is made by a fullback. It's probably even rarer that said play is a pass -- and a deep ball at that. But in this game, that's exactly what happened. (If we're talking about the biggest play before the final play, of course.)
On the first play following Seattle's first touchdown drive of the game, the 49ers came out in 21 personnel, but they lined fullback Kyle Juszczyk up in the slot, rather than in the backfield. Jimmy Garoppolo faked a hand-off to Raheem Mostert, Juszczyk and Emmanuel Sanders ran a fade switch with Juszczyk taking off up the sideline from the slot, and Garoppolo hit him right in stride over the top of the defense for a 49-yard gain.
Four plays later, the 49ers were back in the end zone, re-establishing the two-score lead the Seahawks had just cut into. It took them all of 2:21 to go 75 yards and wrest control of the game right back from Seattle.
Play of the game
Deebo Samuel is an absolute monster with the ball in his hands. There's a reason Jimmy Garoppolo averages the fewest air yards per attempt in the league, but also the most yards after catch in the league. It's because he has guys like Samuel and George Kittle who excel at breaking free of the defense in the open field. So it was fitting that on the 49ers' first touchdown drive of the game, Garoppolo hit Samuel right in stride over the middle, then saw Samuel take off downfield and create even more yards than were there at the time of delivery.
Just a few plays later, Kyle Shanahan schemed up another beauty for Samuel, getting him the ball on an end-around (with some bells and whistles) that resulted in a 30-yard scoring run.
They key to this play is how it built off of San Francisco's typical run game, with guard Laken Tomlinson pulling from left to right to sell the counter hand-off to Raheem Mostert, and Juszczyk faking the same pull before wheeling around and acting as Samuel's lead blocker on the edge. Juszczyk executed the block on Shaquil Griffin at the last possible moment, which allowed Samuel to turn the corner, then spin his way past Tre Flowers and into the end zone.
After holding on by the skin of their teeth, the 49ers moved to 13-3 and captured the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC. They'll have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and meet the lowest advancing seed from the wild card round.
The loss dropped the Seahawks' record to 11-5, and they'll be the No. 5 seed in the NFC. They will travel to Philadelphia to take on the NFC East champion Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.