After getting outscored 71-16 in the previous two meetings with the Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers needed to prove their merit if they hope to make a return trip to the Super Bowl.
"I think it was a statement game to the world just to let you guys know this is still our division. And until a team takes that from us we will continue to rep this division the right way," linebacker NaVorro Bowman said.
San Francisco has won the last two NFC West titles. A third is likely out of reach, but that's not what is important for this team in its current position. The 49ers came in having beaten one team currently with a record above .500. Owning the league's best margin of victory (18.75 before Sunday) wasn't enough to prove to the critics, or themselves, they deserved the title of "elite."
But after beating the team that had their number and the NFL's best record, they can move forward knowing they can out-work the best the league has to offer.
They did so in come-from-behind fashion late in the game. It was the first time they had done so since Week 1 against the Packers.
"We're going to keep on fighting no matter what," Vernon Davis said. "This was an emotional game. It was tough."
It was a bruising, physical battle between two evenly matched teams.
Prior to the 49ers' final drive that went 76 yards, the Seahawks had out-gained them 264 to 242. Colin Kaepernick had 169 yards to Russell Wilson's 199. Both quarterbacks finished with one touchdown pass and one interception. Seattle was 5 of 12 on third down, San Francisco was 5 of 13.
Gore's Season-Altering Dash
The Seahawks had just taken a 17-16 lead with a 31-yard field goal from Steven Hauschka aided by Golden Tate's 38-yard kick return. That followed an unconvincing 49ers' possession that started at their 13 and ended at their 11.
Alex Boone's hands-to-the-face penalty paired with Clinton McDonald's sack made for the most disparaging sequence of the day. In previous weeks, San Francisco might not have been able to rebound.
And just as they have time and again, Seattle put the game in the hands of its defense - the league's best - with a chance to come away with the win.
But not on this day.
"When I saw the hole I kind of knew that 29 (safety Earl Thomas) was going, he's so fast to the ball. I kind of knew he was going to overrun it," Gore said. "I kind of set him outside and then broke him back in because he's so aggressive."
Against Seattle's defense that plays with more eight and nine-man fronts than any team in the league, Gore took advantage of a play Colin Kaepernick had checked away from earlier in the game. But when he went to it again - with the right look from the defense - it worked to perfection.
For a moment it looked like the 30-year-old was going to break away from the defense and get to the end zone. But as he was about to be caught from behind, Gore wisely went down in bounds, letting the clock move with his team in range for the go-ahead field goal with more than three minutes left.
With 3:37 to play and the ball at the Seahawks' 18, San Francisco bled the clock with two runs setting up a crucial 3rd-and-7.
It was deja vu for the 49ers. Kaepernick ran a sweep to the left reminiscent of Alex Smith's famous end-zone jaunt against the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs two years ago. This one didn't score, but it earned a first down the prevented the team from having to kick the go-ahead field goal before the two-minute warning. Otherwise, Wilson would have gotten the ball back with ample time to drive down the field and win the game.
But Kaepernick got a fresh set of downs at the 7-yard line that let Dawson kick the field goal with just 31 seconds to play. It capped a remarkable 11-play, 76-yard drive that chewed 5:54 off the game clock.
But it was the 51-yard run that set up that game-winning sequence. After combining for just 121 yards over the previous three games, Gore finished with a game-high 110. It was his fist 100-yard game since Week 6 against Arizona.
Dawson Sets Team Record
With his four field goals on the day (23, 48, 52 and 22-yards), Phil Dawson set a new franchise record for consecutive kicks made by hitting his 20th in a row.
Having spent the last 14 seasons kicking in Cleveland, the 45-degree afternoon at Candlestick must have seemed like vacation weather for the veteran leg.
"It was the tale of two halves," Dawson said. "The first half, it was cold and the wind wasn't really blowing all that much. And then when we went out to warm up for the second half, it started blowing and the temperature started dropping.
"It was definitely the type of conditions where you had to pay attention to every little thing."
Dawson has helped the 49ers' special teams rebound after 2012's late-season struggles in both kicking and coverage. Sunday he broke the team record for consecutive kicks made set by Joe Nedney starting in November of 2006 through Sept. 30, 2007 when he hit 18.
"I try not to think about it. I try to treat every kick the same. You have to have a bad memory. Unfortunately, I have a really good memory so I can remember my last miss. You just try to go out there each and every time and focus on the task at hand."
Mentally preparing for season-altering kicks takes some getting used to. For Dawson, it's old hat.
When Gore made his 51-yard run to put the 49ers in range for the game-winning score, Dawson's mind was ready to go and win the game.
"What I try to do when we get into scoring range is when I'm kicking into the net, I pay attention to where the ball's being snapped. So if it's on the right hash, I'll pretend I'm on the right hash. Especially in that situation where we had a time out and knew the ball was in the middle, I got one last kick down the middle and get that muscle memory. So when you got out there, the pressure is there and you're nervous, muscle memory takes over and hopefully you make the kick," said Dawson.
Defense Clamping Down
The 49ers came into the game having allowed just 31 plays of 20-yards or more, or 2.58 per game. In the first half, they allowed three that led to 14 second-quarter points for the Seahawks.
In the second half, Seattle's longest play went for 19 yards and was nullified by a penalty. The Seahawks' only points came on their fourth-quarter field goal when they started on San Francisco's 27 following Tate's long punt return.
After amassing 181 net yards in the first half, Wilson's offense had just 83 yards in the second.
Asked what the difference was between the two halves, Bowman said there was none.
"We continued to stay on edge the whole game. We played a very intelligent game. We controlled our emotions throughout the whole game. All that we cared about today was to win."
After the loss to the Panthers, Patrick Willis said the defense's goal each week is to allow 17 points or less. Give the 49ers a check mark for their effort Sunday.
In his fourth game with his new team, corner Eric Wright made his first significant contribution to the league's third-rated scoring defense. But it didn't come without peril.
Wright left the game in the third quarter after suffering an apparent blow to the head. His returned was announced as questionable. But on the Seahawks scoring drive in the fourth quarter, Wright returned, replacing undrafted rookie Darryl Morris as the team's nickel defensive back.
After the 49ers hit the go-ahead field goal, Wilson took a desperate and deep shot for Jarmaine Kearse down the middle of the field. But the receiver slipper and Wright was in perfect position to make the game-clinching interception.
With Tarell Brown's chest injury requiring more time to heal, Wright will remain a key player in San Francisco's defense going forward. Nnamdi Asomugha and Perrish Cox are gone and the once-deep position is now paper-thin with Brown out of action.
After a big, emotional win over their divisional nemesis, next Sunday's road game in Tampa Bay has "trap game" written all over it. The 4-9 Buccaneers are having a season to forget and would love nothing more than to throw a wrench in a contending team's season.
Sunday, Tampa beat the Buffalo Bills 27-6 on their home field thanks to four interceptions collected by its talented defense. The 49ers won't be able to sleep walk through that local 10 A.M. start next week and come away with a win.
Otherwise, San Francisco has one more regular season home game remaining at Candlestick Park when they take on the Falcons Dec. 23 on "Monday Night Football." It's likely there won't be another afternoon game played at the old ballpark. The abnormally cold temperatures of the day seem poetically fitting and spiteful.
The Cardinals (8-5) beat the Rams Sunday to remain just a game back of San Francisco with a game left against the 49ers to close out the regular season. They have consecutive road games over the next two weeks in Tennessee and at Seattle before hosting San Francisco.
For now, the No. 6 seed 49ers are hoping they are playing their best when it matters most.
"We're getting hot at the right time and that's what you want," Anquan Boldin said. "You want to be playing your best football in December and January. For us, we feel like we're hitting or stride. We're still chasing that complete game. We don't feel like we've put it all together just yet. I do feel like we are getting better each week and we'll continue to strive to get better."
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