SAN FRANCISCO -- Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach, compared Sunday's game to experiencing a three-hour root canal. If so, then Frank Gore was the dentist's drill.
And fortunately, he saved his most spectacular drilling for the most crucial moment.
It was your classic Seahawks emergency situation. The 49ers trailed by a point to their biggest rivals. The clock was winding down in the fourth quarter. The goal line was 69 yards away. The withering hand-to-hand combat at the line of scrimmage was yielding little open space.
Who you gonna call?
"Frank," said 49ers lineman Adam Snyder. "He runs to daylight. All you've got to do is give him a little opening. An inch. And he's going to take it."
It is not enough to say that Frank Gore is the 49ers' Mr. Necessary or Mr. Reliable. Gore is something beyond all that in the team's offense, no matter how much the coaching staff has tried to soup up things with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his merry band of receivers. At crunch time, with the 49ers offensive line giving him breathing room, Gore is the man who gives the team winning oxygen.
Sunday, that happened on a first-down play at the 49ers' 31-yard line. Gore was handed the ball on a standard pulling-guard play designed to go left -- but instead saw a bunch of daylight to his right after crossing the line of scrimmage. So he cut that way. Gore didn't stop running for 51 more yards.
Minutes later, Phil Dawson kicked the winning field goal in a 19-17 victory that the 49ers needed -- if nothing else, just to keep their single-game edge over Arizona for the last playoff spot as well as in the NFC West, the Division of Death.
Thanks to Gore, the 49ers remain right there in the postseason conversation. He finished with 110 yards in 17 carries Sunday. But that big 51-yard run, his longest of this season, was the centerpiece. Like so many of his runs over the years, it was part instinct, part intelligence and part pure resolve.
"My offensive line did a good job," Gore said, as he always does, but then explained exactly why the cutback move happened and why it worked.
The same running play had actually been called at least twice earlier in the game. But when Kaepernick did not see the right Seattle defensive look, he switched up. This time, with a favorable Seahawks alignment, Kaepernick let it go.
Gore took over from there. He knew that Seattle safety Earl Thomas had been overly aggressive all afternoon. This time, when Thomas saw the blocking schemes on the play all going left, he sprinted that way. Gore hit the big hole and immediately cut back in the opposite direction from Thomas -- who was now suddenly chasing the play.
"He's so fast to the ball," Gore said of Thomas. "I kind of knew that he was going to overrun it. So I kind of set him outside, then broke him back in because he's so aggressive."
"I don't even know what happened," admitted Seattle defensive back Kam Chancellor. "It happened so fast, I can't even tell you who was out of position."
Answer: All of the Seahawks were, for at least 40 yards. And that's when Gore did the smartest thing of all. With the pursuit finally catching up to him, he decided not to fight off any tackles and went down at the 18-yard line -- inbounds. This kept the clock moving with 3:37 remaining. The 49ers did not want to take the lead too soon and allow Seattle a decent chance for its own comeback.
"That was Frank being Frank," Kaepernick said. "Frank being a football player."
Gore's decision forced the Seahawks to call all their timeouts. And when the 49ers made another first down on a called run to Kaepernick, they bled the clock until Dawson's winning kick.
The whole business ended a nearly monthlong stretch of frustration for Gore, who had failed to gain more than 50 yards in the previous three games, with defenses stacking eight or nine men in the box to contain him. He had been visibly and verbally perturbed by all that. Not after Sunday.
"Like I tell my linemen, we've got to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and just go take it," Gore said. "We have to stay getting positive yards, and we did that all game. First and second down, whenever there was a run, we tried to get 3 or 4 yards. And that's why I think we got the win today."
It felt like more than one win, truthfully. Before Sunday, the 49ers had defeated only one other team that currently owns a winning record (Arizona). They needed a victory over one of the NFL's best teams to show the league -- and themselves -- that they can remain part of the Super Bowl conversation. If the 49ers and Seahawks meet again in the postseason, the game will be in Seattle and the 49ers will be underdogs. But the 49ers at least demonstrated a potential winning formula, on an afternoon that had so many compelling moments.
"They're a great team," Gore said of the Seahawks. "We're a great team. But we are trying to go the right direction (in the playoffs). And that's north."
Sunday was not the last game at Candlestick Park. But it was surely the last best game, unless you really expect the Atlanta Falcons to provide another classic matchup in two weeks for the official final kickoff. (Hint: They won't.) Write it down, then: In the last best game at Candlestick, the franchise's all-time leading rusher made the run that made the difference. He drilled the Seahawks right where it hurt. And it was beautiful.