(AP) - It was the kind of a game deserving of the burgeoning rivalry, a chippy affair very much in doubt until Frank Gore ripped off a run that saved some self-respect if not the season for the San Francisco 49ers.
Allowing the Seattle Seahawks to embarrass them once this season was bad enough. Allowing them to celebrate winning the NFC West title in one of the final games at creaky old Candlestick Park just might have pushed Jim Harbaugh and his charges over the edge.
The 49ers have struggled against playoff-bound teams all season, yet somehow found a way to pull out this one. Scoring three points in the second half isn't usually a recipe for winning teams, but on Sunday the 19-17 victory was just enough to keep San Francisco solidly in the playoff hunt.
It made for smiles all around, even from the perennially cranky Harbaugh. But even the best win of the year for the 49ers didn't change one inescapable fact:
The road to a second straight Super Bowl will almost surely go through Seattle. And that should be enough to wipe the smiles off the faces of any San Francisco fans.
"If we keep doing our thing and they keep doing their thing, no question," Gore said about the prospects of a January visit to Seattle.
So far this season, the Seahawks aren't just unbeaten at home. They look unbeatable at home, including a 29-3 win in September where Colin Kaepernick was so bewildered by the noise and Seattle's defense that he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.
It wasn't much prettier last December at CenturyLink Field when the Seahawks won 42-13 against a team that was headed to the Super Bowl. By contrast, Seattle or any other team in the West hasn't won in San Francisco since 2008, a streak that continued Sunday when Gore rumbled for 51 yards to set up a field goal with 26 seconds left to win the game.
None of that seemed to matter much to the 49ers after pulling off a game that they desperately needed to win if they were going to have any hopes of regaining at least some bragging rights in a division they won the last two seasons. Seattle will almost surely break that run this season, but at 9-4 and playing about as well as they have all year the 49ers are in good position to join them in the playoffs.
"We're playing for our lives," receiver Anquan Boldin said. "We're playing playoff football right now. It's win or go home."
Not quite, but it's getting close. And losing at home to Seattle might have been a killer blow psychologically, if not mathematically to the 49ers.
"I don't know if it was their Super Bowl, but they played a great game," Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant said.
They also talked a great game. There's no love lost between the teams and it showed, with players jabbering at each other after plays and referees quick to step between. Both quarterbacks played respectably, but neither got to 200 yards passing, and in the second half defense dominated on both teams.
Gore said before the game that the 49ers had to run the ball better to win, and took things into his own hands with 110 yards on the ground, including the big run that rescued San Francisco just when it looked as if Seattle would hold on to win.
"We didn't project it to be this way," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. "We expected to blow them out but they got the benefit of a few calls tonight throughout the game, and that helps you especially on third down. We will see them again and it will be a different result."
Sherman likes to talk, of course, and has done his part to add to the animosity between the two teams. He doesn't get along with Harbaugh, his former coach at Stanford, and he isn't afraid to stir things up either on or off the field.
But he plays for a team that can back up his words. The Seahawks took apart a good New Orleans team at home Monday night, then traveled to their division rivals and almost pulled off a win at a place where opposing teams in the West just don't win.
They're 11-2 with games against the Giants, Cardinals and Rams left, and they seem perfectly set up for a deep run in the playoffs. They'll almost certainly have a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the loudest stadium in the NFL _ and perhaps the world _ where they have yet to lose all season.
Despite the loss, the road to the Super Bowl still goes through Seattle. And the Seahawks remain in the driver's seat.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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