SEATTLE — It came down to six inches as Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister laid on his back just short of the goal line after failing to reach the end zone on fourth down.
The 49ers had been here before, two weeks earlier, but instead of giving up a game-winning score like they did against Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco got the stop when it counted.
“It’s football. It’s a game of inches,” 49ers safety Jimmie Ward said. “Dre [Greenlaw] ended up making a play and we won.”
With a gritty defensive stand deep in its own territory, late in the fourth quarter, the San Francisco 49ers achieved something they hadn’t done in over eight years: a win against the Seahawks at Centurylink Field.
Beating Seattle, 26-21, for the first time since 2011, the 49ers clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which will come with a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs — the easiest path to the Super Bowl they could possibly have.
“I feel really good about it. We worked for this all year,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “I know we are much happier that we can stay at home now and we are two games away from the big one… Wish it wouldn’t have been that close at the end but it doesn’t matter now.”
Since losing to the Seahawks, 27-24, in overtime in Week 10, the Week 17 matchup against Seattle has represented the ultimate litmus test for the 49ers. And with playoff seeding at stake with the risk of falling to the No. 5 seed and having to play on the road for the next month, the game loomed over San Francisco largely.
Embracing this pressure, the 49ers looked as sharp as they’ve been over the course of the last decade on Sunday night. With 13 first-half points, San Francisco outgained the Seahawks in yards 222-79 behind starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who completed 11 of his 15 passing attempts through the first two quarters.
Rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who finished the game with a game-high 102 yards receiving, played a large role in building this lead as well, scoring the only first-half touchdown on a 30-yard catch-and-run complete with a spin move into the end zone.
“Deebo has been the man all year,” Shanahan said. “I’ve been so impressed with how he’s played. The moment isn’t too big for him. It doesn’t scare him … Deebo is a stud.”
Despite the double-digit lead, though, the 49ers were not safe from Seattle’s starting quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense, which more than tripled its output coming out of the break.
In addition to Wilson throwing a pair of touchdown passes, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who was signed earlier in the week to bolster Seattle’s roster, found the end zone by jumping over the pile for a score.
Each time Seattle scored, though, Garoppolo, who finished with 285 yards and an 81-percent completion percentage (18/22), and the 49ers offense responded, driving 75 yards on back-to-back possessions in the third and fourth quarter to maintain a two-possession lead.
49ers running back Raheem Mostert, who finished with a team-high 57 rushing yards, scored two touchdowns, extending his streak to six consecutive games with at least one touchdown, contributed to the cause as well.
Unfortunately for San Francisco, on a drive with just under four minutes to play in the second half, an unnecessary roughness penalty on backup center Ben Garland stalled out its offense. The result was a late punt that set up Settle at their own 27-yard line with 2:27 to play in the game.
Seattle wound up on its own one-yard line after converting on fourth down, but a delay of game penalty pushed it back five yards, forcing a throw with just 23 seconds on the clock.
On 4th-and-6, Wilson dropped back as Hollister broke on his route. Firing a bullet pass, Wilson hit his man with another hit on the way. 49er linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair met Hollister at the goal line, putting the tight end to his back merely six inches short of the goal line.
“I have experience from the Atlanta game so I wasn’t ready to celebrate anything,” Shanahan said. “It was a little hectic at the end but once the whistle officially blew, I felt very good.”
After a lengthy review, it was ruled that Hollister was, in fact, short of the goal line, giving the ball back to the 49ers with nine seconds left in the game, allowing San Francisco to wind the clock down.
The five-point win was San Francisco’s first victory in Seattle since Dec. 24, 2011, ending an eight-year drought.
“It feels good. We’ve had a lot of games that have been important here,” said 49ers starting left tackle Joe Staley. Staley is the only current 49ers player that was on that 2011 roster. “We came away today. Just one more play than them.”
With the win, the 49ers clinched their first NFC West championship since 2012 and secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which will now come with a much-needed bye week.
“It’s one less game in the playoffs and having home field advantage throughout, its huge,” Staley said. “Guys have just stayed focus and control what they control. It’s a special team and I can’t wait to get started in the playoffs.”