SANTA CLARA, Calif.—This was as much a statement as it was game, a statement in which the San Francisco 49ers proved they had resilience as well as talent, a statement which told us the Niners can make plays against the team that had made them look bad.
A statement that had gone unspoken but in effect was shouted loudly when head coach Kyle Shanahan, having escaped the routine of how it feels never to win against Seattle-- a streak of 10 games which included three of his predecessors—said “I hated having to answer those questions.”
And now, after the Niners, 26-23, victory over the Seahawks Sunday in the rain at Levi’s Stadium, the winning points coming with 3:06 left in overtime on Robbie Gould’s fourth field goal of the game, this from 36 yards, he won’t be required to answer.
Two weeks ago, in Seattle, the Seahawks crushed the 49ers, 43-16.
“I took it personally,” said 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. “They flat out embarrassed us.”
In a way, they did more than that. They made us question whether this Shanahan thing was going to work. Sure he only was in his second year. Sure he and the Niners had had lost their starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, in the third game of the season. But 43-16? Please.
What you find out in sports, in life, is how people, how teams, individuals respond to adversity. What we found out about the Niners, now 4-10, is they have both the skills and the toughness to show they are a real NFL franchise.
The way things fell apart in Seattle, they came together in Santa Clara. Richie James Jr. returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, the Niners first “he could go all the way” in years. Buckner got two sacks against the Seahawks elusive quarterback, Russell Wilson. Nick Mullens, once more at quarterback, was efficient—that’s the yardstick of a QB—completing 20 of 29 for 275 yards and a touchdown.
The Seahawks, 8-6, and still strong for the playoffs, made the mistakes, called for penalties 14 times, many of those negating big runs, for 148 yards. The 49ers, the underdogs, the team trying to avoid having the worst record in pro football, kept their poise.
“This was a really clear game,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the onetime Niners assistant and USC head coach, “and we just hurt ourselves so much with this penalty thing that it took our chances away.
“We ran the football. We converted on third down, held them on third down, (had) time of possession. So many things we were plus in—the turnover ratio. We really, uncharacteristically, had 148 yards in penalties, 10 (penalties) in the second half, which is crazy. I don’t know how that could happen.”
The Niners don’t care how it happened. They only cared that for the first time since 2013, they were not on the short end when facing Seattle.
“It means a ton,” said Richard Sherman. He’s the cornerback who came to the Niners this year after seven years with the Seahawks, so he knows both sides now.
“It means more that the guys showed up the way they did. Honestly it means a lot beating Seattle for me . . . Those guys played their hearts out. We’ve got an incredibly young team, three rookie receivers, a second-year quarterback. They stepped up to the moment.”
Shanahan was no less emphatic.
“Not all of us have been here since 2013,” said the coach, “but a lot of us have been here last year. We were all definitely here two weeks ago. It’s a division rival. We also were very sick of the way we lost two weeks ago.”
Wilson, the Seattle quarterback, did complete 23 of 31 for 237 yards and two touchdowns. “I thought they played really well today,” he said of the 49ers. “We played well. It really came down to some penalties here and there.”
Penalties Seattle made, maybe because it couldn’t handle Buckner and the Niners defense.
“Getting to double-digit sacks definitely is gratifying,” said Buckner. “I’d like to thank my teammates. It’s not one guy. It’s the whole unit up front rushing as a team. I’m proud of my teammates.”
He has a right to be.