With two conservative teams, the margin for error is small. The 49ers know it, and after a 19-17 loss that ended their playoff hopes, the Seahawks are learning it.
If the tea party needs to adopt a team, the NFL offers either the San Francisco 49ers or the Seattle Seahawks.
These teams are so conservative, they make Michele Bachmann look like Lindsay Lohan. Low-risk on offense, inflexible on defense. The coaches seem to boil with contempt for officiating, perhaps as a figurative extension of government authority.
So, tea party, take the 49ers. They beat the Seahawks 19-17 Sunday at the Clink by sticking to conservative dogma just a little bit better.
Or, as Seahawks defense lineman Red Bryant put it, “When we make the kinds of plays they do, we can have a record like them.”
The 49ers’ record is 12-3, a handsome turnaround from the 6-10 of last season and worthy of the NFC West championship and a high playoff seed. The Seahawks are 7-8, out of postseason contention and stuck with a meaningless game in Arizona Sunday to wrap up the season.
But even though the seasonal disparity was large, the difference between the teams Sunday was one play. The choice can be made among several, but the most agonizing one for Seahawks fans came just before halftime, when the Seahawks lost a likely chance for seven points and accepted three.
Galling as it was bewildering, Carroll said he’s never seen anything like it, and is certain he never will again.
“It never happens,” he said, “and it will never happen like that again.”
What did happen was a blown play — after the two-minute-warning timeout that should have put all Seahawks offensive players on the same page.
What was supposed to be a rushing play for Marshawn Lynch on third-and-inches from a touchdown broke down when left tackle Paul McQuistan flinched before the snap. The false start seemed obvious to several players on both teams, who eased up. But it was not obvious to many more, including the referees, who apparently failed to blow whistles to stop play and mark off five yards against Seattle.
Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson took the snap and dropped back to hand off, but in his words, “no one was playing.”
Not hearing a whistle, he kept on, sprinting to his left in a desperate scramble for the end zone. As he approached the corner pylon, he was knocked out of bounds at the 1-yard line by cornerback Carlos Rogers. It saved a touchdown, because Carroll, learning to curb his hormones in the pro game, decided on fourth down to stay conservative and kick the sure-thing field goal.
It worked for a 10-3 halftime lead. But given the near-complete shutdown applied by the 49ers’ top-rated defense in the second half denied Seattle a chance to make up for the first-half gaffe.
“It’s hard to tell you what (the players) explained,” Carroll said. “Our guys thought we false-started. In that case we were wishing (the refs) would call a penalty on us to give us another chance (on third down). That’s unfortunate. It shouldn’t have come to that.”
Imagine the Seahawks, one of the most penalized teams in the league, needing a penalty called on them. But that’s how precious scoring chances were in a game predicted to be exactly what it turned out to be.
Carroll thought about going for it on fourth-and-one, but has learned his lessons about NFL life, especially against the 49ers, who beat the Seahawks in the season opener, 33-17.
“I didn’t feel like we were in desperation mode at all,” he said of the decision to take the field goal. “We were moving the ball. I felt like, ‘Let’s take our points.’ We were going to be down there again a couple times.”
As it turned out — no. The Seahawks made only three first downs and 72 yards in the second half as the 49ers took advantage of sweet field position and throttled Lynch and Jackson.
The only big mistake the 49ers made was on special teams, when the punt protection broke down inside the final seven minutes and allowed seldom-used linebacker Heath Farwell to block a kick by Andy Lee. The ball rebounded all the way to the SF 4-yard line, where the Seahawks recovered. Lynch was in the end zone a play later, the first rushing touchdown given up by the 49ers this season.
But the 17-16 lead vanished quickly when the 49ers marched down to a David Akers field goal — his 41st of the year to set an NFL record. But with 2:57 left, there was plenty of time for a shot at a game-winning field goal.
The Seahawks made it into 49ers territory for the first time in the second half at the two-minute timeout. But two plays later, Jackson was scrambling for a first down when he was stripped of the football from behind. The 49ers recovered, and except for a futile final Seattle possession, that was it.
The anti-Jackson crowd will probably remember this game for his failure to protect the ball late. But the chance to score on that possession wasn’t as great as the one that ended the first half.
That was the single mistake where the game was lost when two ultra-conservative teams get together. The Seahawks have had themselves a commendable second half of the season, but they were given a cruel lesson about the thinness of margins in the NFL.
One of the 49ers assistant coaches who worked the game in the press box sarcastically shouted, “Merry Christmas!” as he sprinted for the post-game elevator door. It was heard by many Seahawks staffers. It will only add to the growing irritation between the teams, starting with the head coaches and kept burning Saturday by several field altercations.
The playoffs are lost to the Seahawks. But who the 49ers are and how they do things are not lost on the Seahawks.
Finally. A pro sports rivalry in Seattle.