This game was harder than it should have been, and it only gets harder from here. The Seahawks' next three opponents — the Eagles, Jaguars and Rams — are a combined 25-8, a .756 winning percentage.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If it seemed like a needless slog of a game for the Seahawks on Sunday for far too long, well, Michael Bennett is here to tell you that the 49ers are a far more formidable foe than their record, their statistics, and your own two eyes would indicate.
“When you’re playing against a division opponent,’’ said Bennett, “the games are never easy, because you play each other so much, the heated rivalry….”
Bennett then seemed to realize that those final two words needed some amplification (and perhaps some persuasion to squelch the chuckles), in light of the seemingly tepid atmosphere at Levi’s Stadium, which was rife with empty seats as always. Not to mention the demonstrably tepid nature of the Seahawks’ opponent, which had won one game this year, on top of two the year before that, on top of five the year before that.
Russell Wilson is the NFL’s winningest quarterback in his first six seasons. He was tied with Joe Flacco (62 wins) entering Sunday’s game.
“There might not be a lot of fans in the stadium, which there wasn’t a lot of fans in the stadium,’’ Bennett said. “I looked online, and you could have gotten a ticket for $17. You can’t even get a ticket for $17 to my house. But that’s a good team; every time we play them, it’s a hard game.”
The problem is, this game was harder than it should have been. Oh, the Seahawks, who were still clinging to a one-point lead midway through the third quarter, broke away eventually to avoid what would have been a catastrophic defeat, and prevailed, 24-13.
But all the fun stuff in the second half, all the stout defense throughout, came with a footnote that should cause a bit of consternation as the Seahawks head into the meatiest and absolutely vital part of their schedule: Namely, that this was the 49ers. The team that ranked 30th in scoring defense, tied for 27th in scoring offense, and yet couldn’t be shaken by the Seahawks until late in the third quarter.
I don’t mean to completely minimize a victory, because they are all crucial in such a tight playoff race, and this one certainly left many positive things to cling to. Yet with powerhouse Philadelphia up next, followed by Jacksonville and the Rams — all three of which are at least tied for the lead in their division — it would be wise to not take too much comfort in what transpired.
The first-half struggle of the offense continued an alarming trend, one that won’t be as easily rectified against the tougher foes. The Seahawks lacked rhythm and pace early, dropped too many balls, and simply could not sustain any drives. Their lone touchdown before intermission was gift-wrapped via a sensational interception by Bobby Wagner, who yanked the ball out of the hands of San Francisco wide receiver Trent Taylor — “He just took the dude’s lunch money,’’ Earl Thomas said admiringly.
As happens so often, Russell Wilson came to life in the second half, sparked by an across-the-body grab from Doug Baldwin that kept a scoring drive alive, as well as the savvy machinations of Baldwin on a throw to the end zone that induced a pass-interference call.
And as happens so often as well, the Seattle defense stifled the 49ers until the offense could catch up — not that they look at it that way at all, Thomas said.
“You have no control over that,’’ he said. “You have to stay locked in, be mentally tough, and every play counts. Every rep counts. And then hope and pray that Russ and the offense, they break through and give you a cushion whenever you need it.”
That’s exactly what happened, with Wilson hitting his tight ends, Nick Vannett and Jimmy Graham, with second-half touchdowns. Coach Pete Carroll also felt the running game, particularly Eddie Lacy, showed signs of awakening, though that conclusion, too, must be parsed against San Francisco’s status as the second-worst run defense in the NFL. The Seahawks rushed 30 times for 90 yards, with Lacy getting 46 yards on 17 carries — 2.7 yards per attempt, not exactly breakthrough material.
“It’s the first time we had a chance to feel Eddie throughout a game,’’ said Carroll, who touted the contrast between the bruising Lacy and the skitterish J.D. McKissic (with no sign of Thomas Rawls being part of the equation). “It’s a nice mix. That felt like we have something going here. It’s time. We’ve been waiting.”
The Seahawks are trying desperately to survive in the playoff race despite a string of critical injuries, particularly to their defense. Their pass rush was encouraging Sunday, and the play of Wagner was extraordinary — the kind of ostentatious effort that starts to get Defensive Player of the Year talk percolating.
Thomas sees a group coalescing despite the absence of Cliff Avril on the defensive front (“It takes three people to equal one of Cliff when it comes to rushing the passer,’’ Bennett said), and three out of four starters in the secondary.
“It’s all building,’’ Thomas said. “There’s a new group out there. We’re still getting all these experiences and situations together. We’re going to look at the film. If we really master where our help is, we’re going to be perfect. That’s the goal.”
Perfection was not attained Sunday by the Seahawks, but victory was. Now the Seahawks have to hope that whatever progress they made can transcend the 49ers.