SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After a frantic 10-minute overtime, packed with five possessions, two punts and an improbable pick, the San Francisco 49ers defense walked off the field, shoulders slumped, after a 42-yard Jason Myers field goal sealed a 27-24 win for the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night.
In front of a national audience that had just started to believe in the heretofore perfect 49ers, they were decidedly imperfect, but still showed their mettle in their first loss of the season. “That felt like an NFC Championship game right there,” said Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson.
Despite allowing 21 straight points off of turnovers, despite a battered offense hamstrung by injury and drops, San Francisco came back from 11 points down and got an elite effort from what’s become one of the best defenses in franchise history, reigniting a dormant rivalry that was one of the best in the NFL during the early part of this decade. The 49ers just couldn’t finish.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to playoff football,” said San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman, who once was the face of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense that beat San Francisco in the 2013 NFC title game. “Rivalries aren’t made in the regular season.”
With the two teams 1-2 atop the NFC West, Monday was certainly the best entry in the rivalry since a 2014 Thanksgiving-night debacle at Levi’s touched off a slide that saw San Francisco employ four head coaches in four years amid numerous personnel and philosophical changes. Since that night, the 49ers had lost nine of 10 meetings headed into Monday night.
San Francisco came in 8-0 for the first time since 1990, but was already without tight end George Kittle (knee and ankle) and kicker Robbie Gould (quad). Over the course of the game, lost receiver Emmanuel Sanders (ribs), defensive tackle Ronald Blair (knee) and defensive tackle D.J. Jones (groin), who opened the proceedings with the first of five San Francisco sacks on the night, which included two by second-year centerpiece Fred Warner.
The 49ers (8-1) held Seattle (8-2) to just one yard of offense in the first quarter, as arguably the biggest and loudest crowd in Levi’s Stadium history buzzed. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead on its first two drives, with the crowd chanting rookie Deebo Sanuel’s name after his three catches en route to a 43-yard Chase McLaughlin field goal and a Jimmy Garoppolo 10-yard touchdown slant to Kendrick Bourne.
“That was as loud as this stadium’s been,” said defensive end Nick Bosa. “We came out fast. It was an emotional roller coaster for us.”
What looked to be Garoppolo’s one big mistake per game — a would-be interception at the start of the 49ers’ first series — was negated by defensive holding. Even without the Pro Bowler Kittle and with Garoppolo going 0-for-5 throwing to Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis, San Francisco seemed in command.
Then, Sanders — Garoppolo’s favorite receiver since he was acquired three weeks ago — walked off the field, clutching his side, and the offense shut down. Bourne dropped a pass, so did fullback Kyle Juszczyk then so did Pettis, who couldn’t haul in a third-down conversion that hit him in the hands.
Without having to worry about Sanders in the slot or the blocking/catching abilities of Kittle, Jadeveon Clowney and the Seattle pass rush began to tee off. Without those two, the 49ers didn’t have a receiver who had more than 227 yards over the first eight games.
With 2:57 left before the half and Clowney bearing down on him after four QB hits in the first quarter, Garoppolo got jittery and lost grip on the football as Jarran Reed ran though blocks by left guard Laken Tomlinson and Ben Garland — playing for injured starting center Weston Richburg. Clowney picked it up and trotted 10 yards in for a touchdown.
“That changed the momentum of the game,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan.
It was the first of 21 straight points the Seahawks scored off turnovers, including two on Garoppolo fumbles, and another thanks to one of three Bourne drops (and eight by 49ers receivers on the night).
“There’s nobody that faltered in this locker room,” said tackle Mike McGlinchey. “There’s nobody that batted an eye. Things didn’t bounce our way tonight, and that’s the way it goes.”
Garoppolo hit Bourne in the hands on San Francisco’s next drive, but the ball bounced up and into the hands of Quandre Diggs, who returned it 44 yards to the San Francisco 16.
Three plays later, the Seahawks took the lead on a Wilson jump pass to a one-handing Jacob Hollister, putting the 49ers behind in the second half for the first time since Week 3. After Clowney forced another Garoppolo fumble at the San Francisco 24 on the very next drive, Seattle (8-3) once again turned a short field into points on a Chris Carson one-yard touchdown, taking a 21-10 lead.
“We had too many self-imposed mistakes,” Garoppolo said.
San Francisco’s defense, though, responded. K’Waun Williams stripped Wilson on second-and-seven at the Seattle 35 with 12:12 to go, and when offensive lineman Germain Ifedi picked the ball up, Warner punched it out for DeForest Buckner to scoop and score. Garoppolo — who finished 24-of-46 for 248 yards, a touchdown and a pick — hit Bourne for a two-point conversion, closing the gap to three, and Kittle, nursing a knee injury, was caught on television cameras smiling while stalking around his luxury suite.
“I love having a defense like that,” Garoppolo said.
Sherman then broke up a third-down pass to D.K. Metcalf, but as Garoppolo got into a rhythm, Bourne dropped a sure touchdown pass up the seam, forcing a 39-yard field goal from McLaughlin — signed six days ago to replace Gould — to tie things at 21-21.
The extra period saw five possessions crammed into 10 minutes, with Wilson throwing a pick to fifth-round rookie Dre Greenlaw — starting his first career NFL game — at the two-yard line. Greenlaw danced 46 yards up the Seattle sideline, giving McLaughlin a chance to win the game in sudden death. He yanked his 47-yarder wide left out of a bad hold.
After forcing a punt, San Francisco’s next drive sputtered, too, unable to find a rhythm or convert on third downs without Kittle. Wilson then directed a quick six-play drive, going 3-for-3 for 17 yards and running for 18 more on third-and-three. Myers hit from 42 to end it.
“[Shanahan] is as pissed off as anyone is,” McGlinchey said. “As crazy as it was to be undefeated, we were under the realization that in the NFL, it’s almost impossible to do that. Unfortunately, our loss came tonight. And we’re going to do our darndest to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”