SEATTLE – The blitz was as clean as a cornerback can get on a quarterback.
All that was left for Kelly Herndon of the Seattle Seahawks was to finish off Alex Smith, the young San Francisco 49ers quarterback who still plays the game with a palpable sense of doubt. The situation was third-and-6 with 4:09 remaining.
Smith was all but planted in the turf, and the 49ers should have been marching onto the field for a field goal to push their lead to six points but leave plenty of time for Seattle to rally.
Then a strange thing happened as Herndon barreled his way toward Smith, the kind of thing that is the essential difference between a team with a realistic chance of going to the Super Bowl and one that merely is pretending.
Herndon missed. Smith moved ever so subtly, and Herndon deflected off him. Smith then stepped up in the pocket and found running back Frank Gore for a 20-yard touchdown.
With that, Seattle turned a game it should have won into a 49er runaway as San Francisco prevailed 24-14 on Thursday night at Qwest Field. It kept alive San Francisco's slim hopes of winning the NFC West as it improved to 6-8. Seattle is 8-6 and still controls its destiny, but the 49ers win the division if the teams finish tied by virtue of sweeping the Seahawks.
But the bigger question for the defending NFC champions revolves around whether the Seahawks are true contenders or merely a team staggering around waiting to be eliminated.
Seattle coach Mike Holmgren isn't sure at this point. When discussing the issue of his team's identity, Holmgren summed it up in a way that no coach likes to say.
"Inconsistency is our identity right now," Holmgren said.
To be sure, there are times when the Seahawks still look like contenders. For the first three quarters of this game, Seattle's defense shut down San Francisco. The 49ers didn't get a first down for more than 27 minutes of the game and went three-and-out on eight of their first nine drives, gaining a grand total of 100 yards.
San Francisco running back Frank Gore, who torched Seattle for a team-record 212 yards rushing in their first meeting, went nowhere. Likewise, Smith was a shrinking figure.
"I thought we did a nice job against Gore early on for the most part, and at one stage, they were 1-for-11 on third-down conversions," Holmgren said. "Our defense was giving us a chance and then we couldn't take advantage of opportunities."
Seattle scored late in the first quarter and seemed to be on its way to scores two other times, only to have one drive stall, another end with an interception and finally a crucial fourth-quarter drive end when it failed to convert on third-and-1 and again on fourth-and-1.
"That one was a killer for us," Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said of the fourth-and-1. "You just expect to get that one done. It's supposed to be pretty simple, and all of a sudden you're looking up and it's like, 'What happened?' "
At the time of that drive, Seattle was trailing 10-7. San Francisco had taken the lead with a 90-yard drive that included a 54-yard pass by Smith to wide receiver Arnaz Battle on the final play of the third quarter.
"Yeah, those are the kind of plays that get you going," said Smith, who completed five of his final seven passes for 99 yards and two scores. He also ran for a touchdown as the 49ers scored 21 points in the fourth quarter.
"It was so cold and damp out there that it took me a long while to get warmed up and get a feel for it," said Smith, who has 15 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions in his second season. Not spectacular, but a long way from last season, when he had only one touchdown and 11 interceptions.
Likewise, Seattle is a long way from what it was a year ago, probably too far away to get it back anytime soon.
"We just have to work harder to find it," Seattle running back Shaun Alexander said. "That's the good thing about football. Once you find it, it could be a very great thing. On the other hand, if you don't, it looks ugly."