Niners bounce Seahawks behind Hearst's career day

SAN FRANCISCO – The resilient San Francisco 49ers bounced back Sunday afternoon against the Seattle Seahawks. They did it with tailback Garrison Hearst bouncing all over the field at Candlestick Point, bouncing off Seattle tacklers for a game-high 124 yards rushing on a career-high 31 carries, and bouncing over the goal line for a career-high three touchdowns.

And they did it with the bounces going against them at the finish, allowing the Seahawks to actually have a shot at tying the score in the final minutes after Seattle trailed by three touchdowns with just four minutes remaining to play.


That kind of finish is becoming much too common for this team, and that took some of the luster off a just-what-the-doctor-ordered victory that had to be taken with a spoonful of bad medicine at the end.


"It got close there," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "Sometimes it gets close."


It almost got too close for comfort after Seattle recovered an onside kickoff with 1:57 to play after scoring its second touchown in a span of less than two minutes. But defensive back Rashad Holman saved the day for the Niners before the Seahawks could approach the end zone again, intercepting a Matt Hasselback pass three plays later at the San Francisco 31-yard line to preserve the 49ers' 31-24 victory.


That the Niners were hanging on to victory at the end of this one just didn't figure. Behind the rushing of Hearst and a ball-control strategy, the Niners were coasting with a 31-10 lead late in the fourth quarter.


But, in what has become a pattern for the Niners this year, San Francisco couldn't put the game away despite that huge advantage and waning time on the clock.


The Seahawks needed only 92 seconds to go 57 yards in six plays and cut the margin to 31-17. Then – after the Niners gained two yards on three plays – Seattle needed just 82 seconds to go 80 yards in nine plays to come within seven points of the lead with plenty of time still left on the clock.


It got even tighter than that for the Niners after Rian Lindell's onside kick bounced off the chest of San Francisco receiver Tai Streets and was recovered at the Seattle 43-yard line by Seahawks linebacker Orlando Huff.


But, ultimately, the Niners didn't allow this seemingly sure victory to bounce away at the end.


 "No matter what it looked like, we won the game," Hearst said.


And that was something the Niners desperately needed on a short week after they were blown out at home 38-17 by the Philadelphia Eagles on national television six days before.


In improving to 8-4, the first-place Niners snapped a two-game losing streak and stretched their lead in the NFC West to three games over the St. Louis Rams. The Niners can clinch their first divisional title since 1997 with a win over Dallas next week combined with a St. Louis loss.


But much of the feel-good emotions that were building during this erstwhile rout were released while the Seahawks were making it interesting long after much of the sellout crowd already had headed to the exits.


"Man, we got to finish," Hearst said.


Quarterback Jeff Garcia was almost disconsolate as he stood at the post-game podium afterward, lamenting the fact the Niners had no first downs and a net of minus-two yards to show for their final four offensive possessions.


During that same stretch, the Seahawks gained 197 of their 507 total yards.

That's no way to hold on to a 21-point lead.


"It's something where you have to find a way to smile about it and look up after a win, but it's really one of those things where we have to learn to finish, because we haven't been finishing that well," Garcia said. "We don't like to be in situations like that. Giving up a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter, that's something we should be building on instead of looking to hold on."


That 21-point lead could have been even larger if Garcia hadn't ended San Francisco's first two possessions of the day with overthrown passes that were intercepted near the Seattle goal line.


But the Niners' Pro Bowl quarterback shrugged off the early turnovers and led San Francisco on scoring drives four of the next six times it had the ball. Garcia's most effective play, though, was handing off to San Francisco's Pro Bowl tailback.


Before Sunday, Hearst hadn't carried the ball more than 19 times in a game this season. But with his understudy, Kevan Barlow, out with a knee injury, Hearst once again became the workhorse he used to be before he suffered a career-threatening ankle injury in 1998 that forced him to miss the next two seasons.


"More than anything, you get a chance to get into a rhythm," said Hearst, who recorded his 15th regular-season 100-yard rushing game with the Niners. "You are out there the whole time, so if you make a mistake on a carry, you know the next time to not bounce outside but rather stay inside of them. Just being in the game the whole time is a big difference."


Also making a big difference was San Francisco's special teams, which produced an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown by Jimmy Williams that broke open a tight 7-3 game late in the second quarter.


Hearst, who scored the game's first touchdown on a five-yard run, later added two 1-yard scoring plunges to give the Niners what looked like an insurmountable lead early in the fourth quarter.


Instead, San Francisco couldn't seal the deal until Holman's interception with 83 seconds remaining.


"I looked up, saw he had the ball, and said, ‘Great! This one's ours,'" Niners defensive coordinator Jim Mora said.


But not nearly as easily as it could have been – or should have been.


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