Facing a 4th and 9 from their own 38, the 49ers lined up to punt. Andy Lee and the San Francisco special teams had been near-perfect all season, and Lee was threatening to break Shane Lechler's all-time net average record set in '09. There was no reason to expect anything to go awry.
Then Seattle's #55, Heath Farwell, broke through almost untouched - and apparently unseen, as Dashon Goldson I'm sure was the man responsible, but did not even attempt any kind of contact. Lee had no chance as the blocked punt shot backwards towards the Niners' end zone before rookie Colin Jones prevented a Seahawks touchdown by recovering it.
But Jones only delayed the inevitable. The very next play Marshawn Lynch took a hand-off and bounced outside, avoiding several would-be tacklers before tip-toeing his way into the endzone. It was the first rushing touchdown the 49ers had given up all year - an NFL record - and it broke an also-NFL record of 15 straight games without one. On top of that, the 49ers were in the middle of a several-season long stretch of not giving up 100 yards on the ground to any one player.
Lynch was on the cusp of defeating that mark, he had just broken the team's no rushing touchdown record, and all of this followed Andy Lee's attempt at the record books also falling short as the Niners gave up their first blocked punt of the year. All season long it was the Niners' defense that kept them in games, and their special teams that came out victorious in the field position battle, but the Seahawks' average starting position was their own 33 yard line, while the Niners' was their own 27.
It was an off day, to say the least. The Seahawks had retaken the lead, had done it in historic fashion, and appeared to be beating the Niners at their own game. If their was a reason for the away team to accept defeat, to quit as other teams had done against the 49ers in games prior, it was staring them right in the face. Seattle's 12th man was ecstatic, and shots of Pete Carroll's usual rah-rah USC-behavior flashed across our television sets along with a Skittle-eating Lynch.
Not much changed following the kick off. Kyle Williams was in for an injured Ted Ginn, and had a decent 25 yard return. He slipped on his own and gave himself up at the 24, meaning the play was dead, but everything happened so quick that two Seattle players came crashing in on him, helmet-first. Williams, who is particularly skinny compared to most NFL players, was sandwiched and as the dust cleared he was not moving.
Patrick Willis, the 49ers defensive leader, had been sidelined for the past few weeks, Ginn was injured against the Steelers, Josh Morgan was still going to miss the whole season, Delanie Walker had gone down with a broken jaw earlier in the game and was not returning, and now Williams appeared to be quite hurt as well. It didn't just feel like the game was falling out of hand, it felt like the entire season was going with it; right down the drain, along with any Superbowl aspirations.
The only positive to come from it was a 15 yard penalty for the late hit on Williams, giving the 49ers good field position at their own 39. But that advantage was quickly erased as the 49ers' offense took the field and the first play resulted in a pass interference on Braylon Edwards. Move it back 10 yards and San Francisco now faced 1st and 20 from the 29. They followed this with a 2 yard run by Kendall Hunter and now faced a daunting 2nd and 18. Things looked bleak.
The fans at Century Link Field were very loud as Alex Smith took the hike. He dropped back and the pocket collapsed a bit on his right, forcing Alex to step left. A little less than three seconds after the snap, with a Seattle defender jumping right in front of him, Smith heaved the ball down field towards the left sidelines. There was that moment while the ball was in the air and the camera lifted to follow it that you could not see any players on the field. The Niners are not known for going deep very often, neither are they known for being very successful when they do, but as the pass sailed downwards and the players again came into view, we saw Michael Crabtree leap for the ball with two Seattle defenders very near him. The coverage was tight and could not be expected to be much better; and with help over the inside-top, the throw had to be perfect, and Crabtree had to make the catch.
It was. He did. And there was silence.
Three run plays later and Akers was able to pad his newly-held record for most field goals in an NFL season to 42. As it sailed through the uprights, the Niners took the lead 19 - 17. On Seattle's ensuing drive they began to make their way down field for the game-winning field goal, but similar to San Francisco's earlier road game in Philadelphia, a superb individual effort forced a fumble, and the 49ers' league-leading turnover numbers increased. Larry Grant never quit on the play and chased Tavaris Jackson from behind, forcing the fumble. It was recovered by Donte Whitner. The Niners took more time off the clock and Seattle was forced to use their three timeouts. A punt gave the Seahawks one last chance, but they could not convert on 4th down as Jackson's pass sailed out-of-play, and Alex Smith and company returned for the victory formation.
Two games against Seattle, two wins. It was the first time the 49ers got the "W" in Seattle since 2008. The Seahawks had already been eliminated from playoff contention following a win by Detroit earlier in the day, but their home defeat was the icing on the cake for a San Francisco franchise staring at its first playoff appearance in a decade and looking to clinch a first round bye.
With all the talk of the Tebow's and Manning's of the world, Alex Smith's career-year has gone more-or-less under the radar. Tebow had produced five 4th quarter come back (4QC) / game-winning drives (GWD) in limited starts this season, and Eli Manning was having his usual 4th quarter success as well; also sitting at five. They led the league all on their own until Christmas Eve, when the 49ers' #11 joined them.
But while most of the media - be it national or local - fascinates themselves with the apparent clutchness of quarterbacks on teams that might not even make the playoffs, Alex Smith has been slowly, meticulously placing his name in the record books. Earlier this year, Smith managed to perform a feat which will unfortunately go unnoticed, but shouldn't. When the 49ers brought Detroit to their knees, Smith became only the second player in NFL history to lead three 4QC/GWDs on the road in four games or less. When did it happen first? And who did it? 1989. Joe Montana.
Following the Niners' victory this Saturday, Alex Smith once again joins some good company. He becomes only the fifth player in NFL history to complete four 4QC/GWDs on the road in one season. Here's the list (which has changed since I first posted about it in the article linked above. Not only has Eli Manning joined the list this year since that time, but apparently Everett was already on it. PFR is constantly updating its information, of course, so its possible I missed Everett's accomplishment completely when I first talked about this, or maybe Everett's 4th road game was only recently discovered and added. Either way, take note that my original thread was mistaken in regards to Everett).
Quarterbacks who have led four 4QC/GWDs on the road in one season:
- Joe Montana, 1989 (Superbowl victory)
- Jim Everett, 1989 (NFC Championship loss [to Montana])
- Peyton Manning, 2009 (Superbowl loss)
- Eli Manning, 2011 (???)
- Alex Smith, 2011 (???)
The victory over the Seahawks on Christmas Eve said a lot about this team, as did their other come-from-behind victories this season.
Against the Bengals, it was a classic defensive struggle. The game winning drive mainly featured the Inconvenient Truth, Frank Fore, and the other head of the beast, Kendall Hunter, who punched it in for the go-ahead score.
The next week in Philadelphia, the Niners were in a big hole going into the second half, down 23 - 3. The defense had been giving up points, and the offense had not done much of anything. For a while it even seemed as though Vick would break the team's non-100-yard-rusher streak. Instead, Alex Smith's arm led a comeback, something many pundits still say he is not capable of; and Justin Smith's arm sealed the deal.
Then the Niners were suddenly getting a bit of national attention, but it was mainly framed as "Eagles choke." They still had much to prove, and an undefeated Detroit was a good team to do it against. Earlier in the year, during the lock out, Lions' coach Jim Schwartz had issued a bit of a challenge to Harbaugh, saying, more-or-less, that there was no way Harbaugh was going to be any good. Harbaugh seems to have taken the challenge personally, and the chippy nature of the game reflected as much. It was a tough battle at a very loud Ford Field, but when plays needed to be made Ted Ginn returned a punt into Detroit territory, and Delanie Walker caught a do-or-die 4th down pass for the win.
Against the Giants several weeks later, the storyline was two potential play-off teams fighting for seeding. Manning had just led a great 4th quarter comeback verse the Patriots the week before; but this week was to belong to the Smiths once more. Alex connected to Vernon Davis for the go-ahead touchdown, and after a Manning interception by Carlos Rogers led to a touchdown run by Kendall Hunter, the game was all but out of reach. Still, as the Giants were driving for the game-tying touchdown, Justin Smith's arm again sealed the deal.
And finally, this Saturday against the Seahawks, when our special teams had given up a huge block, and our defense had given up over 100 yards and a touchdown to Marshawn Lynch, it was Alex Smith and Michael Crabtree who came up clutch, and Willis fill-in Larry Grant and Donte Whitner who sealed the deal.
The 49ers comeback victories have all been impressive from a team perspective, because in each one different players have stepped up to make huge plays. When our offense has struggled, our defense or special teams has stepped up. When our defense was giving up points, our offense hung in there step-for-step and came out on top, and our special teams provided great coverage and returns. And even in the unlikely scenario that our defense fails to stop the run, and our special teams has a punt blocked and is losing the field position battle, our offense makes the clutch plays to get the "W".
What would it have said about our defense if Lynch only got 99 yards, and if he didn't score that touchdown? Nothing that we didn't already know: our defense is the best in the league, and our front seven is one for the record books.
But what does it say about this team that, no matter who we play, we're always in the game? And even if you do rush well against our historic defense, and even if you do beat us in the field position battle and block the great Andy Lee, you are still going to sit at home in January with another digit in your loss column...
... while the San Francisco 49ers sit one game away from a 13 - 3 season that will remind many people of 1981.
The Team. The Team. The Team. We have the best team in the NFL. Merry Christmas, everyone. Let's bring home a Lombardi for the New Year!