Colin Kaepernick felt the congratulatory pat on the butt from coach Jim Harbaugh seconds before he lowered his knee for the game’s last snap. Then he passed that butt-slap along to Eric Wright, who just clutched the game-clinching interception.
The 49ers and their young quarterback from Turlock had just finished an exceedingly nasty task. They had outslugged the Seattle Seahawks, the NFL’s alpha team of 2013, the tough guys who embarrassed the 49ers by a combined 71-16 in their last two meetings.
No wonder the 49ers exchanged pats on the backside. They won a turf war, a three-hour knife fight over tiny pieces of Candlestick Park real estate. On a day so cold the seals by the bay may have requested parkas, the 49ers scraped home 19-17 Sunday by the margin of Phil Dawson’s foot and Frank Gore’s eye for the opening.
Kaepernick often struggled against Seattle’s No. 2-ranked defense. Then again, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson had his struggles, too. Defense dictated all things, to no one’s surprise.
Some of Kaepernick’s throws sailed high and wide. His one attempt at the read-option was squelched for a minus-7 yards. The 49ers’ only bid for a two-possession lead evaporated when Kaepernick’s too-short throw to Michael Crabtreee at the goal line was intercepted by corner Byron Maxwell. His early quarterback draw appeared end zone-bound until linebacker Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks’ designated Kap-stopper, pulled him down at the 5.
But when winning time arrived and Candlestick sounded like a throwback from the 1980s – all that was missing was some background music by Phil Collins – offensive coordinator Greg Roman dug deep into the playbook and called a quarterback sweep to the left on third down.
Two years ago, Alex Smith stamped that play into 49er lore with his memorable playoff dash against the Saints. The sequel proved almost as good. Kaepernick, on 3rd-and-7 from the Seattle 15, followed a convoy to his left for the first down that handed the 49ers all control of the clock for the end-game.
Kaepernick has been critiqued often this season for his tentativeness and, to the outsiders’ view, some eroding confidence. There was no hesitation this time, however, on arguably the game’s second most important play.
“Joe (Staley) kicked his guy out, (Adam) Snyder was pulling up through,” Kaepernick said. “I was following him.”
It’s his legs and his scary-good physical skills, of course, that have catapulted him into one of the NFL’s must-watch players. Trouble is, Kaepernick must deliver the goods for his No. 7 jersey to remain the league’s most-sold.
He may have prompted another sales rush to www.NFLshop.com with that first-down sprint. Beating the Seahawks and their own heralded quarterback Russell Wilson was enough this day.
“Colin did a great job. (We) Didn’t talk about anything,” 49er coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Didn’t talk about him staying in bounds (which he did). Didn’t talk about him getting out of bounds. Just told him to get the first down. And he went and did it.”
Harbaugh equated the game’s bitter push-and-pull to a trip to the dentist for a root canal. He may have been charitable. The teams’ hard-to-miss animosity spills to the surface on virtually every snap. Harbaugh and Pete Carroll’s mutual dislike has rubbed off on the teams, and now the Seahawks are zeroing in on a Super Bowl berth, the 49ers’ destination a year ago.
If nothing else, the 49ers regained a little of their collective swagger. If you say the result carried more cache for the 49ers than the Seahawks, you would be right.
But getting the win mattered on several fronts. San Francisco put down a marker that read, “We can still beat you,” a resounding message after the recent damage the Seahawks have laid on the 49ers.
Can the 49ers match the feat in the Seattle echo chamber in January, you ask? That’s another question for another day and, frankly, the 49ers probably won’t go there until they’re required.
Kaepernick finished by exchanging jerseys with Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette, the ex-Niner and former Kap roommate. Yes, NFL fans would have killed for Lockette’s newest wardrobe addition.
But after a day Harbaugh labeled “only for the tough,” Kaepernick and Lockette displayed some rare sportsmanship between these rivals.
“He’s one of my good friends,” Kaepernick said.
No matchup in the NFL has grown more hot-to-the-touch than Seattle-SF. The 49ers toasted their win because of that dynamic.
So circle the date and remember what Kaepernick and Lockette did as probably the last act of kindness between these franchises until, say, forever.