SANTA CLARA, Calif. - For much of the afternoon, the 49ers were unable to do what they do best.
They couldn't run the ball against Washington (3-8) and averaged less than three yards per carry. And in the fourth quarter, San Francisco (7-4) needed a big play after a Frank Gore fumble gave the ball away inside their own territory allowing Washington to hit the go-ahead field goal with 7:42 remaining.
And the player whose "one-game season" staple made the play.
Receiver Anquan Boldin caught a first-down laser from Colin Kaepernick between two defenders and was drilled by safety Ryan Clark, earning a personal foul penalty, giving San Francisco the ball at the 19-yard line. With the penalty, the play gained 44 yards.
Boldin stood up defiantly as a few teammates joined him in a short celebration. Clark, who delivered a viscous blow, was on the ground in pain and needed help off the field.
Three plays later, the 49ers' offense scored its first touchdown of the season in the fourth quarter with Kaepernick at the helm. It came on a four-yard read-option run to rookie Carlos Hyde, who barreled over Clark on his way to giving San Francisco a 17-13 lead with 2:59 remaining it wouldn't relinquish.
"I knew I was going to get hit going up the seam; saw the safety cheating to that side before the play even started," Boldin said. "Kap made a real nice throw, which allowed me to catch the ball and protect myself as much as possible."
Boldin delivered what's becoming a notorious speech after the 49ers' lost 13-10 to the Rams Nov. 2, which would have the final score Sunday had they not scored on that final drive. After that game, their playoff odds took a significant hit in a crowded NFC. Since then, Boldin's one-game season notion has echoed throughout the team's Santa Clara facility from the head coach on down.
"I thought it was needed," Boldin said. "I think it’s something that somebody needed to say exactly that, where we are and what we needed to do at that point. Everybody knew it, but I think it needed to be expressed verbally."
Since Boldin instilled that sense of urgency, the 49ers have reeled off three-straight wins, including two of the ugly variety in the last two weeks, as they gear up two games against the Seattle Seahawks in a three-week span.
Boldin scored from 30 yards out on the 49ers' opening drive and finished with a team-leading nine catches for 137 yards.
Veteran safety Antoine Bethea, who has game planned for Boldin as recently as last year with the Colts, knows what it's like see Boldin in the middle of the field.
"When we used to play against him, when he would catch the ball, you got to bite down on your mouth piece because you know he’s going to bring the thump too. He’s a strong player," Bethea said.
Boldin's late-game heroics jumped out from an otherwise dreary offensive performance from the 49ers, who tried desperately to run the ball with minimal success. Gore's fumble was the team's third turnover of the day - giving Washington the 3-0 turnover advantage.
As a team, San Francisco ran for 66 yards on 29 carries (2.3-yard average), but continued to lean on the running game when they needed it. On the play prior to Boldin's game-changer late in the fourth, Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman dialed up an inside run to Gore on fourth-and-short at their own 34.
Washington defenders penetrated into the backfield, but Gore sifted through the line of scrimmage for three crucial yards and a first down.
"He’s Frank Gore, man," fullback Bruce Miller said. "It’s been a tough game but we got to have it and the guys up front made the hole and Frank picked up the yards."
Gore finished with 36 yards on 13 carries, his third-lowest total of the season. Hyde fumbled in the second quarter at Washington's 41, but it didn't prevent him from coming up big later in the game.
“Carlos, I thought he was running it inspired. Had the fumble and he was locked into the mission. You can tell by the way he was running the football,” Harbaugh said of the rookie, who finished with 16 yards on seven carries.
The 49ers' defense carried the water for most of the day, sacking Washington QB Robert Griffin III five times, including his final snap when Justin Smith forced a fumble recovered in the air by Ahmad Brooks at the 7-yard line inside the final minute.
Washington managed 213 yards of total offense, including 77 net yards of passing accounting for San Francisco's five sacks. Two of those came from Aldon Smith, playing his second game of the season. Defensive lineman Ray McDonald and outside linebacker Aaron Lynch had the others.
Lynch, who notched his fourth sack in five games, was the subject of a controversial play in the third quarter that nearly swung the game in a significant way. He sacked Griffin back to San Francisco's 42-yard line, sandwiching him with blitzing safety Eric Reid. The referees deemed Lynch went helmet-to-helmet with Griffin and negated the sack. Instead of third-and-17 at midfield, Washington got an automatic first down at the 16 and tied the game with a 27-yard field goal four plays later.
It could have been worse for the 49ers had Washington made its way to the end zone.
"The referee told me that he had two officials that told him that it was the helmet-to-helmet," Harbaugh said. "Tried to explain, I thought what I saw was Eric Reid had his back shoulder blade is what made contact. And I didn’t think that was to the helmet. I thought that was to the chest area – shoulder blade to chest. Those things happen fast."
Kaepernick completed 20 of 29 throws for 256 yards with a touchdown and interception - good for a 93.5 passer rating. He badly overthrew Boldin in the third quarter down the right side line that was picked by reserve cornerback Greg Ducre. It was Kaepernick's first pick since Oct. 19's loss in Denver.
Running back Alfred Morris paced Washington with a big day. His 21 carries and 125 yards accounted for nearly 60 percent of his team's offense, including their only touchdown - a one-yard run in the second quarter.
One of Kaepernick's best connections of the day went to wideout Michael Crabtree (five catches, 58 yards) at the end of the first half leading to three points as the second quarter expired. It was fourth down with :11 remaining and Kaepernick lofted a perfectly ball down the sideline for Crabtree, who snagged the ball falling backward out of bounds. Phil Dawson hit a 41-yard field goal on the next play that gave San Francisco the 10-7 lead at the break.
The 49ers won't have much time to enjoy the win. They welcome the Seahawks in just four days for a Thanksgiving night affair. Harbaugh and his coaching staff went right to work game planning for their rivals immediately following Sunday's game.
Seattle is coming off an important win of their own, overtaking the division-leading Arizona Cardinals 19-3 Sunday. Both teams gained a game in the standings on Cardinals, who lead the division by two games.
"It’s never going to be perfect," Harbaugh said. "We had some penalties, we had some turnovers...Most important thing is the way our guys play. They play their hearts out. Valiant effort, individual effort and team effort. What more could you want if you’re a coach?"