Nothing has been more emblematic of the 49ers’ struggles over the past four seasons than their inability to beat the Seattle Seahawks.
The last time San Francisco was a real contender was in 2013, in part because the 49ers beat the eventual Super Bowl-champion Seahawks at Candlestick Park that December. It was the last time the rivalry felt like a rivalry because the teams were on the same level of dominance.
But then came San Francisco’s dramatic downturn, going from Super Bowl contender to turning over four coaches in four years, a 21-43 combined record and losing to Seattle every time, including the epic battle in the NFC title game.
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It took overtime, but the 49ers finally took down the Seahawks 26-23 in a Seattle-like rainstorm at Levi’s Stadium behind a another promising effort from quarterback Nick Mullens and a gutsy defensive showing that included a little redemption for long-time nemesis Richard Sherman, who finds himself on the other side of the rivalry these days.
“It means a ton,” the cornerback said after the 49ers snapped a 10-game losing streak to Seattle and prevented the Seahawks from clinching a playoff berth.
It was the second time the teams played in a three-game stretch. The last game, Dec. 2 at CenturyLink Field, was a 43-16 blowout.
Sherman said coach Kyle Shanahan “made us painfully aware of the streak.
“... I think it touched a part of guys that you need to touch sometimes. Sometimes, you need to touch guys’ pride. You need to have some pride. You’re a grown man. They went out there and embarrassed you. How are you going to respond? And I think guys showed how they responded.”
Sunday’s game was different. The 49ers countered the Seahawks’ first touchdown with rookie Richie James Jr. taking the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a score, breaking two tackles and running right by kicker Sebastian Janikowski. It was San Francisco’s first touchdown on a kickoff since Ted Ginn Jr. in 2011. It was the season opener against the Seahawks.
The 49ers hit halftime with a 17-13 lead, and Mullens orchestrated a sound offensive performance as he continues to build on his promising second NFL campaign. He passed for 275 yards while completing 20 of 29 (69 percent). He threw one touchdown pass and had a 110.6 passer rating, the third time in his six starts he has eclipsed triple digits.
“Not all of us have been here since 2013, but a lot of us were here last year,” Shanahan said. “We were all definitely here two weeks ago. It’s a division rival. We’re also very sick about the way we lost two weeks ago. I was really proud of the guys just not saying anything. I just knew it meant a lot to our guys, especially after two weeks and to the fans and everything since 2013. I hated having to answer those questions all week. I definitely didn’t want to go a whole ‘nother year doing it. This was our last opportunity to end that, and I’m glad we don’t have to hear that again.”
The 49ers’ lead was never more than eight, when tight end Garrett Celek caught a 41-yard touchdown pass from Mullens in the second quarter, with the help of Seattle safety Tedric Thompson falling down. Celek and tackle Joe Staley are the only 49ers remaining from the team that last beat the Seahawks.
“It just feels great,” Celek said. “It’s kind of like a breath of fresh air. They’ve been holding that over our heads for so long, and now they can’t anymore.”
The teams alternated scores after halftime before kicker Robbie Gould gave the 49ers their second straight victory with a 36-yard field goal with 3:11 remaining in overtime, his fourth of the afternoon.
“They fought back every time we threw a punch,” said Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin, who scored two touchdowns in the first half. “I have to give them credit.”
Seattle punter Michael Dickson had a busy game thanks to a strong performance by the 49ers’ defense. He punted eight times, including Seattle’s final three series and the possession to open overtime.
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner tallied two sacks, including a crucial third down midway through the fourth quarter that forced the Seahawks to settle for a field goal. Seattle outgained the 49ers 385-351 and had more than a seven-minute advantage in time of possession.
But Russell Wilson (23 of 31, 237 yards, two touchdowns) and his crew ended their final three possessions in their own territory.
“They flat-out embarrassed us two weeks ago,” Buckner said. “Everybody from top to bottom wasn’t happy about it. We knew it was going to be a dog fight coming in this week. We just played them two weeks ago. It was a long two weeks for sure.”
The 49ers also benefited from a slew of Seahawks miscues. Seattle was penalized 14 times for 148 yards, including 10 after halftime. San Francisco had five first downs via Seattle flags, including a pass interference on the final drive that put the 49ers in field-goal range.
Rookie receiver Dante Pettis, who had a team-high five catches for 83 yards, drew pass interference on cornerback Shaquill Griffin to give San Francisco a first down at Seattle’s 41 following a 5-yard loss on the previous play. It was a controversial call from the Seahawks’ perspective.
“I got him on the original move when I broke in and he grabbed me,” Pettis said. “(He) didn’t really let go. ... I guess that’s what they called. I definitely thought they had held me at the beginning.”
The 49ers improved to 7-1 in December since Shanahan was hired in 2017. The goal next year with Jimmy Garoppolo under center is to springboard a strong final month of the regular season into a playoff berth - like the Seahawks often do.