SANTA CLARA, Calif. – It was a decision that Pete Carroll said went against every instinct in his body.
But with roughly 10 minutes to play in Sunday’s 25-23 victory by the Seattle Seahawks over the San Francisco 49ers, the man who espouses to Win Forever suddenly went along with the idea that he had to worry more about winning next week than winning right now.
So Carroll pulled quarterback Russell Wilson (officially with 9:29 left) and a few other starters to keep them out of harm’s way once it became clear that Seattle will have to open the playoffs on Saturday at 5:15 p.m. at home against Detroit in the wild-card round. (NBC will broadcast the game.)
That fate was sealed when Atlanta held on to beat New Orleans, denying the Seahawks a chance at the No. 2 seed and a bye in the first round. Seattle, instead, will be the No. 3 seed and assured a home game next week and then go on the road in the divisional round if it wins.
Carroll, though, described having to think about a game other than the one right in front of him as feeling like he was in outer space.
“I’m never in that frame of mind,” Carroll said. “And I will always challenge that thought. I hate backing off at any time ever. I can’t remember doing it very many times, if ever. Just thought we needed to do something to do what we could to protect ourselves for next week.”
Seattle was ahead 25-16 at the time, while Atlanta was ahead of New Orleans 38-13 heading into the fourth quarter.
Both games then gave Carroll potentially even more reason to feel a little queasy as the 49ers scored with 5:42 left to pull within 25-23, while the Saints mounted a last-gasp rally to get within 38-32.
But ultimately, the decision worked out as backup Trevone Boykin led a drive to kill the last 5:42 while the Falcons held on to win and keep the No. 2 seed.
Carroll said once he pulled Wilson he never wavered, even after the 49ers scored.
Wilson, whose battles with three separate injuries this season undoubtedly played a factor in the decision, likewise said it was hard for him to come off the field – he had played the first two snaps of the drive before being replaced by Boykin.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to trust Coach and his opinions,” Wilson said. “He knows what he’s doing.
“When Coach made the decision, I was for it. I saw that some other guys weren’t playing, too, (such as Thomas Rawls, Michael Bennett, Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin). We knew that we were going to have a home game (next week) so that was kind of our focus, trying to get some rest and trying to get ready and allow nothing crazy to happen.”
Surreal described much of what happened earlier as the 49ers played the game with the specter of the imminent firing of general manager Trent Baalke and coach Chip Kelly, with that announcement coming after the game.
Despite that, it was the 49ers who looked like the playoff team early, scoring touchdowns on drives of 75 and 79 yards on its second and third possessions of the game, at which point San Francisco had a 155-10 edge in yards.
Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said the 49ers crossed up Seattle with some different blocking schemes in its zone-read running game. Wagner said the Seahawks’ front seven had to specifically change how it was filling in gaps on running plays.
“Once we made our adjustments we were fine,” Wagner said.
Still, the 49ers led 14-6 midway through the second quarter when Athyba Rubin forced a fumble that Frank Clark recovered and returned to the 15. That set up a Wilson-to-Luke Willson touchdown pass that made it 14-13.
The next time Seattle had the ball, Wilson threw a 41-yard pass on which Doug Baldwin made a leaping grab over Rashard Robinson to get the Seahawks out of a hole.
“A ridiculous catch,” Carroll marveled later.
Two plays later, Wilson scrambled and threw it up for grabs for tight end Graham, who boxed out San Francisco safety Antoine Bethea to make the catch at the 1.
“I loved the fact that Russell saw Jimmy down there and threw the ball up for him to go make a play and he did,” Carroll said. “I thought that was awesome.”
Seattle never trailed again. But neither did Atlanta, leaving the Seahawks to take solace in the fact that the win allowed Seattle to have 10 victories for a fifth straight season and go into the playoffs on an upbeat note, especially after the surprising home loss to Arizona the week before.
But if the regular season had a few more bumps and bruises than expected, Carroll said that’s all forgotten now.
“All these worries you guys have (about how the team is playing), I ain’t got them,” Carroll said. “We are going to go play football the way we know how to play and go for it one game at a time, just like we always do.”
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