Rivalry reborn: 49ers, Seahawks slug it out

Aldon Smith and the 49ers celebrated a victory in an NFC West rivalry that's beginning to boil over. AP Photo/Kevin Casey

SEATTLE -- Derisive shouts of "Merry Christmas" from San Francisco 49ers coaches boomed through the Seattle Seahawks' press box following one of the fiercest, most confrontational NFC West battles since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002.

The 49ers had prevailed on the scoreboard, 19-17, when select 49ers coaches left their stations and headed for the elevators. At least one of them repeatedly rang in the season with gusto, punctuating an emotional afternoon for all parties at CenturyLink Field.

San Francisco improved its record to 12-3 and moved to the verge of clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. The 49ers produced another game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, overcoming a blocked punt and the violent, borderline-possessed running of Seattle's Marshawn Lynch.

Fights and shoving matches broke out early and continued throughout the game. If it wasn't the 49ers' Mike Iupati and the Seahawks' Red Bryant scrapping, it was the 49ers' Aldon Smith and the Seahawks' Breno Giacomini going at it, to name just a couple of the headliners. Throw in some of the NFL's loudest fans and this felt like a playoff game.

"It was a battle," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said.

And a costly one for both teams.

The Seahawks needed a victory and some help to keep alive their playoff hopes. Victories over the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals during the final two weeks would have gotten Seattle to the postseason had Chicago gone 2-0 and Atlanta lost its final two games.

Even those long-shot chances seemed plausible after Seattle's Heath Farwell blocked Andy Lee's punt with 6:58 remaining, setting up Lynch's go-ahead touchdown run.

But when the 49ers moved quickly into position for David Akers' winning 39-yard field goal, the Seahawks' had blown a fourth-quarter lead to lose at home for the second time in a month.

The 7-8 Seahawks will look back on this season and lament their inability to stop Washington's Rex Grossman and San Francisco's Alex Smith from completing deep passes with the outcome in the balance. Michael Crabtree's leaping sideline grab for a 41-yard gain was the pivotal play Saturday.

After a trip to Arizona in Week 17, the Seahawks will head toward the draft knowing they need a young quarterback to build around, but they'll also be tempted to use their first-round pick for another pass-rusher -- especially in the absence of a quarterback they feel worthy of an early selection. Seattle could not get pressure consistently enough with its four-man rushes, not only Saturday but throughout this season. That is one leading reason why the Seahawks will miss the playoffs despite fielding a better team overall than the one that went 7-9 and won a playoff game last season.

"Today, we had it and we let it slip away, but we're young and we're going to learn from these hard lessons," Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said.

For all the 49ers gained by moving within one New Orleans defeat or a San Francisco victory over 2-13 St. Louis from clinching the No. 2 seed, they paid a heavy price for their first season sweep of the Seahawks since 2006.

Tight end Delanie Walker, a player critical to the foundation of the 49ers' offense, suffered what Davis said was a broken jaw. Receiver Kyle Williams, an increasingly important player whose significance will grow if Walker is out, suffered an undisclosed injury when Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson and linebacker Adrian Moten sandwiched him following a kickoff return.

Cringe-evoking replays showed Walker and Williams absorbing devastating hits, one incidental and another -- the one from Robinson -- drawing a 15-yard penalty.

The 49ers' seemingly invincible run defense suffered two symbolically painful blows. Lynch ended San Francisco's 36-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher and 15-game streak without allowing a rushing touchdown. Lynch bulled over and through a defense that had previously held up just fine without injured Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis.

But if the 49ers' streak had to die, it could not have done so with any more dignity.

Lynch, playing behind an offensive line missing three injured starters, earned the full respect of the 49ers' top-ranked run defense. There was no shame in seeing a player as indomitable as Lynch finish with 107 yards, not the way he was running. Even Justin Smith, widely regarded as the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL, could not always bring down Lynch unassisted.

As a result, the 49ers could not feel comfortable in victory until linebacker Larry Grant, subbing for Willis, forced Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to fumble in the final minute. Safety Donte Whitner recovered and the Seahawks were finally out of realistic chances.

"All the credit goes to Marshawn," Grant said. "We could have done a lot of things better to help ourselves as well, but that dude is an animal. He's a beast."

For as testy as this game became on the field and even with the impromptu Christmas caroling in the press box afterward, I was struck by how well the combatants composed themselves in the locker rooms afterward. Civility and respect prevailed over contempt and the expression of hard feelings.

"They've had a fantastic season and they've played great football all year long," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Our guys went toe-to-toe with them. ... We can play anybody. I don't care who it is or where it is."

Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, now 2-0 against Carroll in the pros and having held the upper hand during their final days coaching against one another in the Pac-10, spoke with almost no outward emotion when addressing reporters. That was a departure from the irreverent tones he struck following his team's comeback victory at Detroit earlier in the season. It was inconsistent with the way this game was played on the field. Harbaugh would allow himself only the slightest moment of public reveling.

"It feels good to sweep a division opponent," Harbaugh said in his closing remarks. "It feels good to come up here and win in a hostile environment. It feels good as a preview of what the playoffs are going to be like. It's what both teams need. It was a playoff-type game for the Seahawks as well."

Mark down Saturday as the day Seattle and San Francisco laid the foundation for something the NFC West hasn't seen in its current form: two young, ascending teams with hard-nosed mentalities and hyper-competitive coaches. The regular season is nearing its end, but this felt like a beginning.