Brock Purdy, 49ers find rhythm in second half as Seahawks falter

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After a tight first half, the San Francisco 49ers scored 25 unanswered points to open the second half, pulling away to a 41-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday at Levi’s Stadium. The NFC wild-card win was the 11th in a row for the 49ers, who will face an opponent to be determined in next weekend’s divisional round.

San Francisco 49ers

As the lowest-drafted rookie quarterback to start a playoff game, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy appeared to show some understandable nerves for the first time in his young career.

Purdy started Saturday’s wild-card matchup against Seattle with some missed throws and late reads on plays he’s made look routine over the past month. But, once again, Purdy didn’t flinch when faced with adversity.

With Purdy settling in and his playmakers gaining plenty of yards after the catch, the Niners rolled into next week’s NFC divisional round. They’ll host the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys or Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Levi’s Stadium.

Whatever was affecting Purdy early vanished with a quick stop in the locker room at halftime. He was nearly perfect in the final two quarters, going 9-of-11 for 185 yards with two passing touchdowns and a rushing score.

Purdy finished 18-of-30 for 332 yards with four total touchdowns. In the process, he became the third rookie quarterback to throw for three scores in a playoff game and threw for multiple touchdowns in a game for the seventh consecutive time, tying him with Justin Herbert for the longest streak by a rookie quarterback since 1950.

The biggest question facing these Niners as the postseason began was how Purdy would react when the lights burn brightest. Just as he has with every test thrown his way so far, Purdy passed with flying colors.

Pivotal play: The Seahawks trailed by only six with 2 minutes, 31 seconds left in the third quarter and had the ball at San Francisco’s 19-yard line, threatening to take back the lead.

But when Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith dropped back to throw, he got immediate pressure from Niners defensive lineman Charles Omenihu off the right side. As Smith stepped up, Omenihu swiped the ball away.

An alert Nick Bosa pounced on the fumble for the game’s first takeaway, and the Niners promptly drove for a touchdown that essentially put the game away.

The takeaway not only swung points in San Francisco’s favor, but the 49ers also did not have any giveaways. The Niners are now 14-0 this season in games in which they commit one or zero turnovers.

Eye-popping NextGen stat: For the first time this season, Niners running back Christian McCaffrey did not get a touch on the first drive of a game. But he made his first attempt count on the second possession, racing 68 yards off the left side for the third-longest rush of his career.

On the run, McCaffrey hit a top speed of 20.8 mph, his fastest speed as a ball carrier since Week 8 of 2019.

— Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

So much for the Seahawks getting Purdy to buckle under the pressure of his first playoff start. So much for the inclement weather that might have been an equalizer for Seattle by slowing down the 49ers and their run-after-the-catch playmakers. And so much for that silly notion that it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season.

The 49ers made it look easy in the second half as they turned a one-point halftime deficit into a blowout victory in which they showed — again — the big gap that exists between them and the Seahawks. San Francisco has outscored Seattle 89-43 in three games this season.

As ugly as it got for the Seahawks over the final two quarters, perspective is important. They weren’t supposed to be at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday, hanging tough with the No. 2 seed in the NFC and even carrying a 17-16 lead into halftime over a team that had won 10 straight games. They weren’t even supposed to be in the playoffs in the first place after trading quarterback Russell Wilson, cutting linebacker Bobby Wagner and committing to playing a bunch of young players on both sides of the ball.

The arrow is pointing up for the Seahawks, even with Smith unsigned beyond this season and a defense that needs a lot of work up front. They’ve got a promising young core and a boatload of 2023 draft capital, including the fifth overall pick via the Wilson trade. But the 49ers just sent them into the offseason with another reminder that the Seahawks will need to take a big step forward before they can catch back up to the new bully on the NFC West block.

Troubling trend: Most of the Seahawks’ defensive issues this season stemmed from their overmatched front seven, but their tackling was poor at all three levels. That was a big reason they ranked 31st during the regular season in yards allowed after the catch per reception. That made for a tough matchup against a 49ers offense that has led the NFL in YAC for the past six seasons, and it went about as poorly for Seattle as you’d expect. Deebo Samuel’s 74-yard, game-sealing touchdown catch was the most glaring example of Seattle’s bad tackling. The 49ers finished the game with 181 yards after the catch, their third most in a game this season.

QB breakdown: Smith delivered the type of up-and-down performance that typified his play over the closing stretch of the regular season. He threw a thing-of-beauty deep ball to DK Metcalf in the second quarter for a 50-yard touchdown that gave Seattle a lead. He completed 71.4% of his passes, right around his franchise-record season average. But he committed another costly turnover via a lost fumble that ruined a potential third-quarter scoring drive. He threw an interception in the fourth quarter, but Seattle was in desperation mode by then. Smith finished 25-of-35 for 253 yards and two touchdown passes, both to Metcalf.

Pivotal play: Late in the third quarter, the Seahawks were driving for what might have been the go-ahead touchdown or at least a field goal to cut the 49ers’ lead to three points. But their 12-play drive ended when Smith was stripped while trying to step up in the pocket on third down. The 49ers then took a 14-point lead on their next possession. Seattle’s pass protection had held up well against an excellent San Francisco front four until the strip-sack of Smith. It was only the 49ers’ fifth pressure of the game on 22 Seattle dropbacks (23%), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They pressured the Seahawks on 38% of their dropbacks in the regular season.

— Henderson

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