NaVorro Bowman leaned on two black metal crutches inside his locker.
The linebacker’s left knee, shredded after 14 tackles on a stunning, sickening play at the goal line that prevented a Seattle touchdown in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, was immobilized. Bowman needed help from two 49ers staffers to get his black-and-yellow running shoes onto his feet.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks just shook his head.
“I don’t feel like talking, to be honest with you,” he said.
A few feet away, Aldon Smith sat in a folding chair. The linebacker at the center of most that went right and the one giant play that went wrong for the 49ers on Sunday in their 23-17 loss to the Seahawks stared down at the carpet in front of him. He let out a huge sigh.
“Frustrating,” Smith said.
The 49ers gave up leads of 10-3 at halftime, 17-10 in the third quarter and 17-13 entering the fourth quarter against a Seahawks team that had lost just once inside this house of roars in 17 previous home games. But that wasn’t the fault of these swarming linebackers or the rest of the determined 49ers defense.
It played Sunday like the destructive third-ranked defense it was in the NFL this season.
Blitzing freely from inside and out, the 49ers throttled Seattle into the third quarter. Then, the Seahawks wisely used Marshawn Lynch’s bullish runs (76 of his 109 rushing yards came in the second half) to slow down San Francisco’s pass rush.
After that, the 49ers allowed just three points after quarterback Colin Kaepernick committed two turnovers in his own end during the fourth quarter, including a fumble that gave Seattle the ball at the San Francisco 6-yard line.
That’s why linebacker Patrick Willis, blood trickling down his right forearm from a gash near his elbow, also was sighing. Last season’s loss to Baltimore in the Super Bowl, plus this excruciating loss, keep Willis without an NFL championship in seven pro seasons – despite three consecutive appearances in the conference championship game.
“It’s … it’s hard. It’s hard to get here,” Willis said through a long exhale. “It’s hard to win it all. It’s hard to win enough games to get into the playoffs. It’s hard once you get into the playoffs to get into the Super Bowl.
“To get there last year, and now come up short twice in the NFC Championship, you realize how hard it is to win.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio aggressively exploited the edges of Seattle’s offensive line. Many of the edge rushes and linebacker blitzes targeted overwhelmed Seattle right tackle Breno Giacomini. Many 49ers went unblocked into besieged Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson.
Smith set the defense’s treacherous tone on the first play from scrimmage, sacking Wilson and forcing a fumble he recovered at the Seattle 15. That set up a 25-yard field goal by Phil Dawson for the first opening-drive points against Seattle’s defense this season.
The 49ers had four sacks of Wilson by halftime, two by Smith and one by Bowman. Seattle had just 126 yards and three points in the half.
On the last play of third quarter, second and 6 at the 49ers’ 28, Brooks blitzed off the left edge, bulled through Giacomini and met Wilson with a hit to the quarterback’s chest. Wilson’s pass fluttered to no one, landing behind the line for an intentional-grounding penalty that pushed Seattle to midfield.
Two snaps later, on fourth and 7 at the San Francisco 35, Smith’s aggression cost him and the 49ers – decisively.
Smith, standing menacingly, crowded the line. Wilson countered with a double count, causing Smith to jump into the neutral zone with both feet. Wilson and his receivers saw that and the ensuing penalty flag.
All three Seattle wide receivers ran vertical routes to the end zone. With the free play – and with a dejected Smith slowed for an instant instead of charging at the quarterback – Wilson fired a touchdown pass to slot receiver Jermaine Kearse. The ball zipped just under the arms of 49ers nickel back Carlos Rogers to give the Seahawks their first lead, 20-17, with 13:44 left.
“We actually had a different route concept on,” Wilson said, “but if they jumped offsides we were going to take a shot downfield.
“And sure enough, they did.”
Unlike Smith, Rogers said the secondary wasn’t caught flat-footed by the offside flag.
“He just threw a good ball,” Rogers said. “I was outside. The pass was inside.”
Still, the pride and effort of the 49ers’ defense moved Fangio, an assistant in professional football since 1984, to do more than merely address each defensive player individually in their silent locker room afterward.
“It hurts every year when you are close. But this one right here … I told these guys that I loved them, and I kissed most of them,” the defensive coordinator said. “I’ve never done that before.”