Donte Whitner was a noticeable amount of blood, just pooled up and sitting there.SAN FRANCISCO – Atop the considerably sized left shoulder of 49ers safety
There didn't appear to be an open cut. The blood wasn't flowing. It was just present. This wasn't an injury, per se. It was a wound, like, after 60 merciless minutes of a 19-17 victory over the archrival Seattle Seahawks, his body was just too worn out to keep all essential fluids inside of it.
Whitner stood in front of his locker, stretched his neck to take a look at it and just shrugged.
"I don't know," he said. "It looks like something. I have a couple on my legs too … I'm busted up. I feel like I played linebacker."
There are no easy games in the NFL. There are no postgame locker rooms without bruised and beaten men. That's the sport. That's the business.
Yet Sunday the NFL's most intense rivalry arrived here and with it came another level of physicality, intensity and, indeed, brutality. Adding to the nastiness was cold, raw and unrelenting weather.
Neither team is particularly fond of the other, so each yard was contested through the whistle. From there it often continued with a barrage of verbiage not fit for families or, perhaps, even NFL referees, who threw flags for what they heard.
"Tough game," Niners running back Frank Gore said. "Tough game."
"Real physical," Seahawks tight end Zach Miller agreed.
"This was an emotional game," San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis said.
It was also a near-essential game for the 49ers and not just to get them to 9-4 and maintain an inside track in the NFC wild-card chase. This was about the renewed confidence of beating an excellent club – which the Niners' résumé sort-of lacked. It was about peeling back the veneer of invincibility the now 11-2 Seahawks were carrying. It was about reminding Seattle that even if the divisional crown is all but assured to go north, the Niners are still throwing punches.
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Mostly it was about how this is over and January is still to come.
"Yeah, we felt like it was a statement game," Whitner said. "We didn't feel like it was just an ordinary game because it's not. That's our rival. They are on top of the division and we feel like this is our division.
"We believe it will come down to us and them, probably up at their place and that's the kind of game you want, you have to go there, where we haven't won," he continued. "It's going to be a loud environment. It's going to be for the big one."
Everyone said it played out as expected, with playoff intensity. Well, almost everyone. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said he envisioned an easy game.
"We expected to blow them out but they got the benefit of a few calls [Sunday night]," Sherman said.
That's what he said. Whether he actually believed that, is another question.
The game was won in the final minute and while Frank Gore's 51-yard run got the Niners into the inevitable game-winning field goal range, what came three plays later may have been just as critical – for the day and the season.
Facing third and seven at the Seattle 15-yard line, the Niners called for quarterback Colin Kaepernick to sweep left. He wound up battling for eight yards, allowing San Francisco to essentially run the clock out on the game – the winning FG was with 26 second remaining.
It was, for Kaepernick, a reminder of his value, his athletic ability, and, indeed on a day like this, his 6-foot-4, 230-pounds of toughness. Despite getting his full receiving corps back – Michael Crabtree had four receptions – Kaepernick struggled throwing the ball. He was just 15-of-29 for 175 yards. He was sacked twice. There was an underthrown fade that turned into a red-zone pick. This wasn't his best day. This hasn't been his best year.
Yet with the game on the line, he was able to fight and claw for the game's most important first down.
"You have a quarterback come out with a play like that, put his body on the line?" San Francisco defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey rhetorically asked. "It just gets you excited."
By the end everyone looked exhausted. Hip-hop blared across the Niners' locker room, but even after a big victory, the mood was fairly low key. Everyone gets excited to play in something like this, but it takes a toll.
Is this rivalry something you enjoy, Jim Harbaugh was asked?
"Enjoy it?" he replied. "That's not the word I would use. It feels like you go to the dentist chair and three and a half hours of getting root canal work done. They're tough. These games are only for the tough."
If nothing else San Francisco believes it is tough enough to do this again, even up in Seattle. The offense will click better. The defense isn't going anywhere. Maybe the division is lost, but the Niners are the defending conference champs, too.
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These two have been on a collision course since the offseason and no offense to the rest of the NFC, but there was a clear feeling that a Super Bowl bid will come down to whomever is tougher next time.
"We will see them again and it will be a different result," Sherman promised.
"We keep doing our thing and they keep doing their thing [we'll play them]," Gore said.
In the meantime, the Niners were ready to take a measure of satisfaction. They earned it the hardest of ways. Consider Whitner still at his locker, trying to assess the sacrifice of a particularly savage of Sundays.
"It's a painful thing," Whitner said. "Look at these shoulders and these bruises."
Physically, this hurt. But …
"It makes it feel a lot better when you win," he laughed.
This isn't over. See you in Seattle.
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