The temptation is to wrap up the Thursday night fiasco in San Francisco as a “trap game” for the Seattle Seahawks, but the only trap was the one that enabled 49ers running back Frank Gore to pound a proud defense senseless.
Otherwise, the 13-6 defeat wasn’t unexpected. You could see trouble awaiting at Candlestick Park, and you could see it from 777 miles away. It was as if the Seahawks, four days after buying property on Boardwalk, drew a “Go to Jail” card.
A road date against the defending NFC West champions, still seething from the clock-cleaning they took from the New York Giants? The Sea-hawks needed to perfect, or as close to it as a young and occasionally absent-minded team can be.
The tone for the night was set early, during Seattle’s opening drive, just as quarterback Russell Wilson had the offense clicking on all cylinders. When Marshawn Lynch wasn’t busting arm tackles, Wilson was throwing crisp passes to open targets. Fullback Michael Robinson picked up a first down on a catch. Slot receiver Doug Baldwin picked up another.
The 49ers, meanwhile, looked rattled, almost too fired up for what NFL Network commentator Mike Mayock aptly described as a “street fight.”
And then the drive stalled – which is to say, the game turned – when Wilson threw a deep spiral to Robert Turbin along the sideline. Turbin had room to make the catch and time to make the catch, but he’s a rookie running back with scant experience as a receiver. The ball went through his hands, and instead of a possible touchdown, the Seahawks had to settle for a field goal.
Turbin won’t look forward to reviewing game films with the coaches this week, but at least he’ll have company. On the Seahawks’ next possession, another potential scoring pass was muffed by tight end Evan Moore. Like Turbin, Moore was open. Like Turbin, a mere incompletion substituted for the sort of highlight play that would’ve enhanced Wilson’s confidence.
Although another Steven Hauschka field goal gave Seattle a 6-3 lead, the two drops were emotionally deflating for Wilson and, for that matter, the entire team. The score could have been 14-3. If the 49ers are down 11 points, maybe they’re forced to take to the air – not a strength for quarterback Alex Smith.
“There were plays that we’ll always want to know what would’ve happened,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said afterward. “The drops really did make a difference. When it’s that close, one play can make a huge difference.”
The Seahawks continued to play with effort – the effort was there, especially on defense, even when legs got heavy in the fourth quarter – but they never recovered from the botched opportunities to score touchdowns rather than field goals.
Wilson failed to regain the early rhythm he showed. He finished 9-for-23 for 122 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. His quarterback rating was 38.7, which is NFL shorthand for “abysmal.” Then again, quarterback ratings do not recognize dropped passes. There were at least five of them Thursday.
And yet it was the defense that Carroll took to task in his postgame remarks with reporters. Despite holding San Francisco to a lone touchdown, Carroll was frustrated by the ease with which Gore blew through holes created by traps.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Gore was seen huffing and puffing on the sideline. He sat out one play, then returned to the huddle with the slow, uncertain strut of a beaten-up boxer gutting it out for the 12th round.
A few seconds later, he was running past a thicket of stand-still defenders. Gore happens to be a premier running back, every bit as much of a load to bring down as Lynch is. But the Seahawks have built their identity around a defense that’s supposed to contain running backs, even those who qualify as elite.
Gore’s 131-yard performance suggests the Seahawks didn’t do much containing.
“I’m not pleased with what we did on defense,” Carroll said. “We allowed them to run the football. We’re a lot better than that.”
During Jim Harbaugh’s short and skillful tenure as 49ers coach, San Francisco had responded to five regular-season defeats with five victories. The collective score of the last four of those victories was 93-11.
No wonder Harbaugh, who gave terse, monotonic answers to simple questions during his conference call with Seattle-area reporters the other day, sounded like a victim from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He was a man possessed.
It’s doubtful Harbaugh keeps track of Las Vegas odds – what do those wise guys know that he doesn’t? – so he probably didn’t realize the 49ers were a touchdown favorite, second-highest point spread of the NFL week. (Only the New England Patriots, seeking their own revenge after surrendering a 23-10 lead in Seattle last Sunday, got a fatter point spread. They’re favored by 10.5 points to beat the New York Jets.)
Turns out the oddsmakers in Las Vegas saw this one coming, too.
On the bright side? The Seahawks, 0-3 in road games against division opponents, have completed the division road-game phase of the schedule with their playoff hopes intact. They’ll get a chance for rematches at CenturyLink Field against Arizona, St. Louis and, on Dec. 23, against San Francisco.
By then, Russell Wilson’s targets might develop the soft hands needed to catch the touchdown passes that can put tough opponents in a deep hole.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com