SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers’ 8-0 start, doubling their win total from last year, has changed expectations in an instant, and it was the team’s hope that a victory Monday night would show the N.F.L. its legitimate claim as the front-runner.
Instead, the 49ers showed why their team is still a work in progress after losing, 27-24, to their N.F.C. West rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, in overtime. Despite the loss, the 49ers remain a half-game atop the league’s most competitive division. But Seattle, with quarterback Russell Wilson at the helm, displayed the poise and creativity of a team that has made the playoffs six out of the past seven seasons, and will probably continue to chase the 49ers.
“It was a bit of a reality check for us,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said after the game.
San Francisco came into the year with the 11th hardest schedule, but capitalized on games with the Bengals, Cardinals and Redskins in the first half of the season. Seattle, meanwhile, has already played eight games decided by 7 or fewer points, including two consecutive overtime games. That experience paid off in the end when kicker Jason Myers squeaked through a 42-yard field goal to secure the win for Seattle, which is now 8-2 and a half-game behind the 49ers. The two teams will meet in the last game of the regular season in what is shaping up to be a showdown for the division title.
The game had the intensity of a playoff game, featuring as many big plays as missed opportunities, and enough turnovers, dropped passes and penalties to drive a coach mad. The teams traded game-tying field goals in the last two minutes of regulation. But in overtime, the 49ers’ rookie kicker, Chase McLaughlin, missed what would have been a game-winning 47-yard field goal.
That drama was hard to envision early on, when San Francisco’s defense, which has given up the N.F.L.’s second fewest points and yards per game, set the tone. Their formidable front line, led by D.J. Jones and Nick Bosa, gave Wilson little time to find receivers and stifled Seattle’s running game. Ahead by 10-7 before the end of the first half, San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tartt made a touchdown-saving play when he stripped the ball from Seattle wide receiver D.K. Metcalf at the 2-yard line, preventing Seattle from taking the lead.
In the second half, with Seattle ahead, 21-10, and set to run away with the game, the defensive line again got to Wilson, who fumbled. The ball was recovered by Seahawks guard Germain Ifedi, who was also stripped of the ball. DeForest Buckner picked up the fumble and ran into the end zone for a touchdown, pulling the 49ers to within 3 points.
San Francisco’s offense had trouble hanging on to the ball though, fumbling twice and dropping passes. That put the 49ers defense back on to the field, and Wilson found ways to exploit their fatigue. The 49ers defense notched five sacks. But Wilson scrambled out of trouble and ran the ball a half-dozen times for 53 yards, including a key 18-yard dash in overtime that set up the winning field goal.
“If he doesn’t have a guy open, he’s looking to create a play and looking for some rush lanes to open, and he got us a couple of times,” Buckner said.
Garoppolo, who spent three years as Tom Brady’s understudy in New England before being traded to the 49ers in 2017, has been one of the league’s most accurate passers. But on Monday, the quarterback looked unnerved by Seattle’s defensive line, led by Jadeveon Clowney, who got to the quarterback 10 times.
Garoppolo was sacked five times, threw one interception and fumbled the ball twice. It didn’t help that his top receiver, tight end George Kittle, was injured, and that the 49ers lost receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a rib injury early in the game. Garoppolo was almost intercepted several other times, and his receivers dropped several throws. He ended the night 24-for-46 for 248 yards.
“The offense played as hard as they could, but they made too many mistakes,” Coach Kyle Shanahan said.
The setback aside, the 49ers appear destined for the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season, and fans in the Bay Area have taken notice. Sales of 49ers merchandise is up over 150 percent compared with last season, according to Fanatics, and is third overall behind the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. The value of tickets listed online for resale has jumped 80 percent since the start of the season, according to Vivid Seats, a ticket marketplace.
The question is whether the buzz will continue. After meeting the Arizona Cardinals next week, the 49ers play the Green Bay Packers (8-2), Baltimore Ravens (7-2) and New Orleans Saints (7-2), and will finish the regular season with divisional matchups with the Los Angeles Rams and Seahawks.
“It was a little gut check taking this L tonight, but we’re going to bounce back,” Buckner said.