SEATTLE — The 49ers are clearly better than the Seahawks. They established that much in their 27-7 win over Seattle in Week 2, and they re-certified that on Thursday night in the Pacific Northwest by deflating their rivals on both sides of a 21-13 victory.
But this went beyond the box score. Advantages in talent only count for so much. When a chance to secure the NFC West crown is on the line, the going typically grows tougher. The 49ers had that clinching opportunity Thursday night, and the Seahawks — defending their home field — certainly wanted to take it away from them. The game also came on an extremely short week, so bruises from the previous Sunday still ached when the 49ers took the field in prime time.
That finishing blow always seems to be the toughest one to deliver.
Gritting through that truth became the centerpiece of the 49ers’ focus. Take the message tight ends coach Brian Fleury had for George Kittle in a ballroom of the Marriott Bellevue hotel in a meeting on Wednesday night.
“(Fleury) told me last night that in 15-20 years he’s been coaching in the NFL, this was his fourth or fifth opportunity ever to clinch a division,” Kittle said. “(He said), ‘They don’t come very often. Don’t let an opportunity like this pass. Bring everything you can tonight. You’re going to get a couple days off. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. Just bring it every single snap, so you can celebrate.’
“So you just have to take that to heart and go for it.”
Dre Greenlaw strikes again — and again and again — as 49ers win NFC West
Kittle and his 49ers teammates certainly absorbed the memo. They controlled Thursday’s affair from start to finish. And when matters became slightly hairy toward the end — as seems inevitable in any game for the 49ers at Seattle — they stayed the methodical course, drawing wisdom from their past.
“I channeled my Joe Staley energy tonight,” Kittle said. “I just remember when we beat ’em in ’19 and Joe was crying coming off the field. Just like, you feel that. And you realize how hard it is, because you don’t get to this situation very often.”
The 49ers’ NFC West clincher in 2019, of course, was the most harrowing ordeal possible. They dodged what looked to be yet another Russell Wilson Houdini act by literal millimeters. Dre Greenlaw’s legendary tackle at the goal line saved the day. Hearts raced for hours after the fact.
In relation to that, this 2022 division clincher was of the garden-variety type. It wasn’t the final game of the regular season. There are still three weeks left. The 49ers, in fact, have clinched their division sooner than any other team in football.
But regardless of changing circumstances, the operative line holds true. That finishing blow always seems to be the toughest one to deliver.
And the 49ers faced a new version of that reality late in the fourth quarter, when Seattle had somehow managed to pull within a score with over 3 1/2 minutes still left on the clock.
It was gut-check time for the 49ers, and coach Kyle Shanahan motioned to the bullpen for his closer.
That was rookie running back Jordan Mason, a 223-pounder who’d seen only one carry up until that spot in the game. It was the moment of truth; the Seahawks’ last desperate defensive gasp to prevent their rivals from partying into the night.
Mason responded with a bolt through the line, a 55-yard dash on third-and-2 that locked up the 49ers’ NFC West crown.
“You see 2-4 coming off the sidelines, we label him ‘The Closer,’ he’s running so hard, man, ain’t nobody really trying to hit him,” 49ers left tackle Trent Williams said afterward. “People are taking creative angles on him. I think the way he runs, he puts it on film so guys know. It’s super tough when he come in hitting the hole that hard.”
Said 49ers left guard Aaron Banks on Mason: “He’s ‘The Finisher,’ man. You see the last couple games, he comes in and he’s a really downhill, tough runner. And it’s nice to have some fresh legs come in like that after we’ve really been wearing them down all game to really seal the game.”
It’s fitting that Mason’s run also sealed that last, hardest part of the NFC title — because the rookie’s emergence is perfectly symbolic of the depth and overall roster prowess that’s enabled the 49ers to reach this point.
The team is on its third starting quarterback, rookie Brock Purdy, who played very well in the Seattle din. The 49ers have overcome a never-ending slew of other injuries across the entire roster. They shrugged off a seemingly demoralizing 44-23 defeat to Kansas City on Oct. 23 and haven’t lost since, posting the NFL’s No. 1 efficiency marks by a wide margin over their seven-game win streak.
The 49ers’ locker room was certainly in a celebratory mood after Thursday’s win. Hugs went around. Players donned T-shirts that read “Conquered The West.” Kittle paid homage to the last time the 49ers clinched the division in Seattle by proudly showcasing his undershirt featuring a quote from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — one of the handful of key players the team has had to replace this season.
But above anything else, players in the 49ers’ locker room maintained the same even-keeled perspective that’s helped fuel this season’s success.
Christian McCaffrey, who’d never won a division title over his five seasons with Carolina (he only went to the playoffs once, in his 2017 rookie season), savored the feeling with a wide smile at his locker. But it wasn’t long before McCaffrey chatted with fullback Kyle Juszczyk, based at the neighboring stall, about the details of the complementary display that had propelled the 49ers.
And a few feet away, that balance is exactly what Williams focused on. After the Week 8 win over the Rams that kick-started the 49ers’ win streak, Williams had talked about the importance of complementary football to the team’s formula. On Thursday, about two months later, he marveled at how the 49ers’ defense had so spectacularly taken care of its part of the formula.
“To be honest, it’s actually hard to play complementary football with that defense, because they overachieve — every single game,” Williams said. “The turnovers come, the sacks come. It almost keeps the pressure on us. We have a 10-play drive, and they have a three-play drive — it’s right back up for us.
“Playing complementary football is very important, but when you have a defense that good, it makes our job a lot easier.”
Still, the very end of that job belonged to the offense. That finishing blow, after all, always seems to be the toughest one to deliver.
And out of the many moments that Kittle could’ve discussed in an interview with ESPN in Lumen Field’s hallway, the tight end chose that knockout punch. To him, it best encapsulated the 49ers’ remarkable surge, which seems to be far from over.
“How about our rookie running back going for a 50-yard run to seal the game and clinch the division?” Kittle said. “I wasn’t even out on the field for that play. Our O-line, our tight ends, our fullback — just running downhill violently and physically to seal that game. It’s picture perfect.”
Mason also spoke of that sealing opportunity in the locker room, and he added a touch of self-deprecation while doing so. The rookie, after all, had run out of steam just before he reached pay dirt. The Seahawks caught him at the 2-yard line.
“It was unbelievable,” Mason said of his run. “But to be honest, if I got the play back, I’d unhook the trailer.”
Mason laughed as he conveyed that regret. He realized the best news of the night, both for himself and for the 49ers, was that there’s still a lot of football left to be played. That means many more opportunities to roar forward at full throttle and avoid any last-second snags.
“It was a winning vibe in the locker room,” Mason said of the division title. “But it seemed like we’re ready for the next. We’re already onto the next.”
(Top photo of George Kittle and Brock Purdy: Joe Nicholson / USA Today)