This quarterback problem for the 49ers wears No. 3 for the Seattle Seahawks. His name is Russell Wilson. He was the most dynamic player on a field filled with outstanding ones Sunday night. His poise, throwing accuracy and maddening elusiveness was the reason Seattle landed a 42-13 right cross to the 49ers' noses for all to see on national television.
Wilson is the No. 1 reason why the Seahawks have scored 150 points over their past three games. He is why they are as dangerous as any NFL team heading toward the playoffs.
"You look back at a couple of the past Super Bowl winners, they were wild cards who got hot," veteran linebacker and Super Bowl XL participant Leroy Hill said. "I'm feeling a certain way. We're hot right now."
When the Seahawks were trying to run out the clock with backup Matt Flynn, receiver Sidney Rice suggested to Wilson on the sideline that the rookie quarterback re-enter the game and run around for as long as it took for the remaining time to expire.
"There was one play where it felt like he was running around for about 15 seconds out there," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said.
If Wilson beat the 49ers with his four touchdown passes, he exhausted them with constant movement to avoid their grasp. The 49ers had nothing left by the end.
"He made guys look silly out there," Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant said. "This is the National Football League. He's a handful, and I'm glad I don't have to play him."
Wilson is going to be a problem for the 49ers and every team the Seahawks face for the foreseeable future, including in the upcoming postseason.
Seattle clinched at least a wild-card berth by improving to 10-5. While San Francisco (10-4-1) will likely clinch a second consecutive NFC West title by beating the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17, the Seahawks would not for one minute trade what they've got going for what anyone else has going right now.
That's no slam on the 49ers or anyone else. San Francisco remains one of the strongest, most complete teams in the NFL. The 49ers could still charge forward into the Super Bowl in spite of injuries to Justin Smith, Vernon Davis and Mario Manningham.
The likelihood of that happening did take a hit with this defeat, however.
"We will wake up tomorrow and have a half-game lead on the division," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Our hand will be on the dial next week to take care of business."
The 49ers' chances for a first-round playoff bye are severely diminished after the Green Bay Packers improved to 11-4 with a 55-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans. While they could use a bye week to get healthy, Seattle looks like a team that would embrace playing in the wild-card round for the opportunity to keep a good thing going without interruption.
"It's just the way we're playing right now," Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor said. "I guess the world is just seeing it now. We're still not going to get any respect just because of where we are and who we are, but who cares?"
The 49ers respect Seattle.
"They have improved tremendously," Whitner said.
Wilson should get respect as a legitimate (and perhaps leading) candidate for offensive rookie of the year. He has eight total touchdowns over the Seahawks' past two games. He trails only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in Total QBR since Week 2. He trails only Aaron Rodgers and Manning in NFL passer rating over the same period. His 97.6 QBR score Sunday night was the highest in the NFL for Week 16.
"Russell played like crazy tonight," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
What happened Sunday night was more about the Seahawks than it was about the 49ers. It was about Wilson shredding arguably the best defense in the NFL, albeit one without arguably its best player, the injured Smith. With Smith safely on the sideline, the Seahawks ran 10 times for 77 yards and a touchdown outside left tackle, up from four such runs for 25 yards when the teams played in Week 7, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The 49ers might have been more competitive with Smith, but I'm not sure they could have located and brought down Wilson with 13 or 14 defenders on the field.
For the Seahawks, this game was about following an overtime victory at the Chicago Bears with a 58-0 thumping of Arizona. Then following that whooping with a 50-17 manhandling of the Buffalo Bills, and then converting 11 of their first 12 third-down chances against the 49ers. It was about being the aggressor on both sides of the ball, delivering hits that knocked out Davis and had the 49ers' receivers favoring self-preservation when they saw defenders coming.
The score was 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-6 at the half.
"They started off fast, their crowd was loud, they were in it," 49ers tight end Delanie Walker said. "Their defense was physical. They stopped us. Their offense put points on the board quick and we couldn't catch up."
Wilson completed 15 of 21 passes for 171 yards and a 115.3 passer rating. He took just one sack despite holding the ball and scrambling around to buy additional time. The 49ers were effective in preventing Wilson from striking well downfield after scrambling, but Wilson can beat a defense in more ways than one.
Wilson completed five of seven passes for 78 yards from outside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Kaepernick also moves well, but he's less experienced and doesn't move as purposefully as Wilson does at this stage. Not many quarterbacks do. Kaepernick completed just five of 12 passes from outside the pocket, including an 18-yard touchdown pass to Walker when the game was well out of reach.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, perhaps playing his final game of the season unless he wins an appeal of an NFL suspension, picked off Kaepernick in the end zone and scored on a blocked field-goal return.
"If you're going to throw the ball late, I'm going to bait him into that every time," Sherman said. "He tried to throw late across his body and you don't do that against our defense."
The Seahawks have now scored touchdowns on 23 of their last 33 red zone possessions after converting at a 6-of-18 rate over their first seven games. They have won four in a row and six of their last seven.
"I've been on some good teams, some playoff teams," Hill said, "but how hot we are right now, I haven't seen it."