A new day dawns as 49ers sink Seahawks

This changes everything. These aren't the stumbling, bumbling, struggling 49ers anymore. These are the 49ers on a three-game winning streak. These are the 49ers one game out of first place and in the thick of wild card contention with six games to play. These are the 49ers who blew out the defending NFC champions for one half, then showed heart and moxie to hold on for a monumental 20-14 victory.

Monumental? Yes, this one was that big. The 49ers rolled to a shocking 20-0 advantage at halftime Sunday over the Seattle Seahawks, who have ruled over both them and the rest of the NFC West for the better part of three years.

It should have been 24-0 at the break, but more on that later. Despite giving the Seahawks a whole load of opportunities to get back in the game - Joe Nedney missed gimme field goals from 30 yards out in the third quarter and from 27 yards in the fourth quarter that could have slammed the door with 38 seconds to play - the resilient San Francisco defense, heroes yet again for the third consecutive week, weren't about to let this one slip away.

And now, take a look around. The 49ers are back at .500 in November for the first time since 2003, and sit just a game behind the first-place Seahawks in the NFC West, a team they pretty much just tossed around Monster Park for most of the afternoon before a roaring sellout crowd of 68,367.

It was San Francisco's first victory over Seattle since 2002, snapping a six-game losing streak against the NFC West kingpins.

The 49ers have a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2002 - the season they won their last NFC championship - and now the rest of the NFL world can't help but take notice of coach Mike Nolan's resurgent team, a squad that was left for dead late last month after consecutive blowout losses to San Diego and Chicago, two of the league's best teams.

"I think we gained some respect right here," said linebacker Brandon Moore, who again came up huge on defense, leading the 49ers in tackles for the third consecutive game. "Teams are going to have to respect us now, because our offense is rolling, controlling the game, and our defense is going out and stopping the run, rushing the passer and we're taking the ball away."

That was this game in a nutshell, with the offensive setting the tempo and then controlling it during an eye-opening first half behind a spectacular performance by Frank Gore. The second-year tailback was virtually unstoppable, rushing for 130 yards in the first half and never stopping until he'd finished with a franchise-record 212 on 22 carries.

Gore had a 51-yard burst in the second quarter, then broke off a 50-yarder in the third quarter as he sliced through and powered over the Seahawks throughout the afternoon.

"We just ran it right at them," said Gore, who now has 1,043 yards rushing this season and is closing in on both the NFL lead and Garrison Hearst's team season record of 1,570 rushing yards in 1998. "We out-physicaled them. We ran downhill. O-line, fullback, wide receivers, they did a hell of a job blocking up front and down the field. I'm just happy, man."

Gore practically had people dancing in the aisles as he broke off big run after big run in the first half, pushing the 49ers down the field for drives of 76, 40, 69 and 40 yards.

The 49ers had to settle for a 39-yard field goal by Nedney after the first long drive, but they then assembled back-to-back touchdown drives, with quarterback Alex Smith hitting Arnaz Battle for a 9-yard touchdown pass and then scoring himself on a well-designed and executed 1-yard bootleg to push the 49ers ahead 17-0 with 4:14 left in the half.

On Seattle's next play from scrimmage, quarterback Seneca Wallace - starting in place of Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck (knee sprain) for the fourth consecutive week - hit a wide-open tight end Jerramy Stevens over the middle. But as Stevens turned up the field to tack on more yardage, safety Mark Roman came from behind and popped out the football, which went sailing right into safety Keith Lewis' hands.

That was San Francisco's third takeway of the first half. Lewis and Walt Harris both had interceptions earlier, and Harris had another key fourth-quarter pick as the 49ers finished with a season-high five takeaways. They've now forced 13 turnovers during their three-game winning streak while only committing three of their own.

"Bottom line with the defense, when you get turnovers, you make things happen," said Harris, who now has a career-high six interceptions to move into a tie with Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis for the NFL lead in that category. "We emphasize that. On top of that, guys are just playing the defense now. Guys are getting familiar with each other and we're playing the defense. The momentum was definitely with us and guys stepped up."

Lewis returned Stevens' airborne fumble 23 yards to the Seattle 31, and the 49ers had an opportunity to bury the Seahawks right then and there.

And they almost did. Smith hit Battle on third-and-goal from the 7, and Battle managed to break a tackle and wiggle between defenders to stretch the ball over the goal line for an apparent touchdown. Since there were just 23 seconds remaining in the first half, the play went up to the replay booth and, after a long delay, the touchdown call was overturned, taking six points of the scoreboard.

Officials ruled that Battle was down just two inches from the goal line - the ball was practically touching the goal line when they placed it - and Nolan had a decision to make. He didn't think twice. Instead of trying to get those two inches on fourth-and-1, Nolan left Nedney on the field - he already was there to kick an extra point - to split the uprights with an 18-yard field goal.

"Going into (halftime) 20-0 against those guys?" Nolan said. "I was good with that."

At the end, 49ers almost needed those four extra points they could have had as the Seahawks rallied in the second half to not only make a game of it, but put themselves in a position to win in the final minutes.

Wallace hit Deion Branch for a 38-yard touchdown catch-and-run just minutes into the third quarter and - after Nedney had his 30-yard field-goal attempt partially blocked midway through the third period - the Seahawks crept within six points when Darrell Jackson got behind Sammy Davis and burned the backup cornerback for a 41-yard scoring pass with 6:40 to play. Davis was in the game in place of Shawntae Spencer, who had injured an ankle earlier in the quarter.

That hushed the loud crowd, and the feeling crept over the stadium that 49ers might let this one slip away. That was reinforced when San Francisco went three-and-out on offense, giving the ball to the Seahawks with four minutes to play.

"It was important for us as a defense just to make a statement that we're not going to quit and we're going to fight to the end," Moore said. "It was a situation where we had to finish the game. We thrive for those situations. Every time we came off the field, it was said on the sideline, ‘All right, we've got to go back out, this is our game, let's throw it on our shoulders and carry this load.'"

And that's just what the defense did. But not without a crazy sequence in the final two minutes that gave the Seahawks two more chances and provided for a heart-stopping finish.

First, the 49ers stuffed Shaun Alexander - the reigning NFL MVP who had just 37 yards rushing on 17 carries - for a 1-yard loss at the Seattle 36 on a fourth-and-1 play at the two-minute warning. That appeared to win it for the 49ers, but as it turned out, the game was far from over.

On the next play from scrimmage, Gore fumbled on a straight dive into the line and the Seahawks recovered at the Seattle 26. But the defense again rose to the occasion. Roderick Green raced around the left side to drop Wallace for a 9-yard loss on first down, and on the next play, Harris stepped up for his second pick.

Gore burst up the middle for 17 yards and a first down on the next play, taking the ball down to the Seattle 17, and the 49ers then ran Maurice Hicks into the middle three times to force the Seahawks to burn their remaining timeouts. Nedney then trotted out for a 27-yard field goal with 38 seconds remaining to ice the contest.

But he inexplicably missed it, hooking it to the right, giving the Seahawks yet one more chance and putting it on the San Francisco defense one final time.

"The adversity that we faced late in the game, to be honest with you, I'm thankful for it," Nolan said. "It builds character, it builds confidence and it builds mental toughness.

"It's not often that you see a team that's trying to turn the corner play a team that's as good as Seattle, have some of the things happen that happened at the end of this game, and still hang on to win the game outright and not give it to the opponent. I'm very pleased with that from our football team."

Out of timeouts with 34 seconds remaining, the Seahawks really had no chance from their own 20. The San Francisco defense wouldn't let them. Wallace threw incomplete on first and second down, then completed a short pass for three yards on third down. On fourth-and-7, he threw underneath to fullback Mack Strong, who tried to lateral the ball backwards as the 49ers converged on him. Rookie Marcus Hudson fell on the ball for Seattle's fifth turnover, and the 49ers had the biggest win of the Nolan era.

"I think we've kind of put it out there now," said veteran defensive lineman Bryant Young, the longest-tenured 49er, who also came up big with five tackles, including the fourth-down stop of Alexander. "So teams have to take us serious now."

That begged the question: Have the 49ers arrived?

Young answered quickly.

"No," he shot back, "I'm not going to say we've arrived. There's still a lot of room for improvement. We're still a young team and the sky's the limit for us. If we continue to get better as the season goes on, who knows what can happen for us? It feels good to be back in this situation. We've given ourselves a chance. There's still hope for us, and we just have to go out there and make it happen."

Which is exactly what the 49ers did Sunday to sink the Seahawks and put a rise in a season now full of new possibilities.

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