Back in September when the 49ers traveled to Seattle to lose 29-3, they were a markedly different team than the current version on an eight-game winning streak.
San Francisco was still grappling for its identity with Michael Crabtree out, Delanie Walker gone and Colin Kaepernick trying to adjust to defenses that had a full offseason to adjust to him.
It was an defensive struggle for both teams. And it was clear the home side was better that night. For the second time in nine months under the lights at a noisy CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks stuck it to the defending NFC Champs, winning an ugly clash filled with penalties and mistakes on both sides. The 49ers drew 12 flags for 121 yards.
Early in the season penalties were a problem for San Francisco, playing far too big a role in their first set of back-to-back losses under Harbaugh in Seattle and the following week's loss at home to the Colts. But in their last two road playoff wins, poise has emerged as the team's strong suit. Especially in Carolina where the Panthers thought they could bully the 49ers. Instead it ended up costing them with personal foul penalties in key situations.
"Tough situations I think builds a callous for a football team," said Harbaugh. "We've been in a lot of situations. Been in a lot of venues and I think that helps build a callous on the football team. We’ve been everywhere, man. (Singing) Been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto.”
Harbaugh channeled Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere" twice this week, which is fitting considering some of the road environments the teak has won in over the last two seasons. The 49ers have won in Green Bay (twice), New England, Atlanta and New Orleans among others. But they haven't won in Seattle in more than two calendar years when Alex Smith handed the Seahawks their eighth loss of the year in Week 16 of 2011. Pete Carroll's team finished 7-9 and decided to draft Russell Wilson the following spring.
The loss of Walker was damning for the 49ers' offense, especially early on. His versatility played a huge role in Greg Roman's double-tight end offense with his keen ability to block linebackers and move on to the second level. His receiver-like speed also made him a threat in the passing game.
Vance McDonald has been charged with the difficult assignment replacing Walker. The rookie second-round pick took his lumps early, especially as a run blocker, but turned the corner with the rest of the offense during its current eight-game winning streak. He has just eight receptions on the season, but has been a key cog in the running game over the last two weeks in Green Bay and Carolina, combining to play over 50 percent of the snaps. It might not seem like much, but in Bruce Miller's absence the 49ers have been forced to use two-tight end sets often giving McDonald increased responsibility as a blocker.
"He's been a contributor right from the beginning, by talent and by necessity," Harbaugh said. "When you go back and talk about maybe what happened Week 2 or the first or third week of training camp, every step he's made, he's either done it right or he's learned from a mistake he might have made. He's a do-stuff-right guy. And it's showing up in his contribution."
McDonald threw a key block on Robert Alford on Anquan Boldin's touchdown coming on a bubble-screen in the third quarter of Week 16's 34-24 win over Atlanta. In the Wild Card game against Green Bay, he came out of the backfield as a fullback and landed a crucial block on linebacker A.J. Hawks during Frank Gore's 10-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
In Week 2's loss Kaepernick led the team with 87 yards rushing on nine attempts. San Francisco couldn't get Gore going, who finished the night with just nine carries for 16 yards. With McDonald still learning to block and set the edge in the running game, it was clear the 49ers faced a significant adjustment period with the rookie in for the departed Walker during their first road game of the season.
"It's just taking coaching week to week," McDonald said. "I've had two college years now of pro games. It's just experience. It's just getting more comfortable."
That comfort has been on display over the last two games while McDonald has become a valuable piece in the running game due to his improvement as a blocker. It's helped the 49ers retain a ground attack reminiscent of last ear's Super Bowl team. Against Seattle, the running game will be as important as ever.
Defensively, San Francisco was hurting itself by making fundamental mistakes in September's loss. Three third-quarter penalties in particular played a huge role in the game getting away from the 49ers. On a 2nd-and-goal from the 49ers' 11, Ahmad Brooks had Wilson sacked but grabbed his face mask and was flagged. Instead of a 3rd-and-goal from the 19 with Seattle up 5-0, the Seahawks were awarded a first down and Marshawn Lynch scored the game's first touchdown three plays later to make it 12-0. Had the 49ers held them to a field goal, they would have been a touchdown and two-point conversion away from tying it up.
San Francisco would get a 21-yard field goal from Phil Dawson their next drive to make it 12-3. But on Seattle's next possession, the offense benefited from a 40-yard pass interference from Nnamdi Asomugha that put the ball at the 49ers' 24. After a holding penalty and two negative plays, the defense had the Seahawks pushed out of field goal range on the 42. But on 3rd-and-28, Aldon Smith was tagged with a personal foul following Zach Miller's 15-yard completion to the 27. Instead of a field goal try, the Seahawks got a first down that led to a receiving touchdown for Lynch to make it a 19-3 game early in the fourth quarter.
"I think we've done a decent job of avoiding post-whistle penalties," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "We didn't have any last week (in Carolina). I think our players understand the importance of the situation and not to be selfish and let the emotions get in the way of our team goals."
The 49ers incurred just two penalties against the Packers and five in the Panthers game during these playoffs. The discipline they lacked early in the season has improved drastically with more on the line this postseason.
The most stark difference between this version of the 49ers and the one that visited the Seahawks Week 2 is the passing game and Kaepernick's ability to limit turnovers. In that game, he completed 13 of 28 for 127 yards and had three interceptions with a lost fumble. In December's win over Seattle, the he threw for 175 yards on 15 of 29 passing.
With Crabtree back, Kaepernick's passer rating has improved from 86.6 to 95.5 in the seven games since. But the most significant proof of improvement has come in the playoffs when San Francisco has found ways to move the ball effectively on the road and score enough to compliment their outstanding defense. Crabtree and Boldin both had 100-yard days against the Packers and Panthers respectively, pushing the 49ers' NFL record to seven-straight postseason games with a 100-yard receiver (Crabtree finished with 8 catches for 125 yards - Boldin had 8 grabs for 136).
The dividends Crabtree provides were on display in a limited capacity in December's 19-17 win when he made four catches on eight targets for 40 yards. But his recovery has still wowed his head coach.
"The thought that there would be a gap from where he was this year as to before he got hurt, I think maybe there were some balls he couldn't get to, maybe some catches he wouldn't make, some tackles he wouldn't break, some separation that he wouldn't gain after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon. But it was minor," Harbaugh said.
"You couldn't even tell the difference the first couple of weeks to where he is now, it's as good or better. What kind of human being is able to do that? It's so rare, I can't even compare it to anything else I've ever seen. It's that rare. So very thankful that he's good an able to help his team."
After bringing in Boldin to pair with Crabtree for a sixth-round pick, the 49ers constructed themselves in the offseason to take down a team like Seattle with the league's No. 1 passing defense and a physical secondary. With their best receiving tandem since Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, the 49ers are ready for a return trip to the Super Bowl through their nemesis' home field.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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