SAN FRANCISCO -- They whooped and bellowed, but later Jim Harbaugh's band of large athletes slumped down and contemplated the bruises and bloody patches, too.

They were in a measure of pain. Some of them limped through the locker room with grimaces underneath their smiles.

But the 49ers players knew this: It was far better to have battled and defeated Seattle 19-17 than to have done all this and lost.

The 49ers (9-4) still won't catch Seattle (11-2) in the division race and still have work to do to clinch an NFC wild-card spot.

The 49ers, though, believe they will play the Seahawks again in the playoffs, in Seattle, and they know there will be pain then, too.

On Sunday, the 49ers survived the Seattle Test, and now they can steel themselves for the great and harrowing sprint into the playoffs knowing that the Seahawks are beatable.

"It's fun to win, you know?" left tackle Joe Staley said quietly. "I'm sure on the other side of the locker rooms, they're not saying it's fun.

"It's fun when you have a physical battle."

No question, this was four quarters of ferocious, angry football, played at the highest level that the NFL can provide.

The 49ers admitted they were fiercely determined to end a two-game losing streak to Seattle, and Seattle was hungry to blow the 49ers off the NFL map.

The end result: Seattle went ahead with 6:20 left in the game, Frank Gore crashed through the line for a 51-yard run to set up the 49ers' game-winning field goal, and the Candlestick crowd howled the whole time.

Tension. Walloping hits. Big plays. Bitterly cold weather.

Wasn't that fun, Donte Whitner?

"It's a painful thing," the 49ers safety said, pointing to a splotch of blood on his upper arm.

"Look at this shoulder and these bruises. It's two physical football teams that really, really want to win a championship, that are fighting for this division, fighting for respect."

That's what this Seattle series has turned into for the 49ers; that's how far the 49ers know they have to go to get through these games.

These games test Colin Kaepernick, and he was so-so on Sunday, completing 15 of 29 passes for 175 yards, a touchdown and a very bad red-zone interception.

These games test the 49ers' running game, and Gore's 110 yards pushed them over the hump.

And these games test the 49ers' proud defense, which gave up some big plays in the first half, then gobbled up the Seahawks offense in the second.

The quality and intensity of these games, more than anything, demand that these two teams play for the ultimate stakes in January.

How else could this conclude?

"Yeah, we believe it'll come down to us and them probably at their place," Whitner said.

"That's the type of game you want -- you have to go there, where we haven't won, it's going to be a loud environment, it's going to be for the big one.

"We understand that if we go up there and play good football, don't turn the ball over, we can beat them in their house."

The 49ers didn't play perfect football Sunday, but they forced Seattle into even less-perfect football.

The 49ers didn't trick or toy with Seattle, they delivered gut-shots, took shots, staggered into clenches to avoid a knockout and made the last rally that mattered.

The natural reaction was relief, joy ... and then the realization of just how brutal it all was to endure.

"Enjoy it? Not the word I would use," Harbaugh said of these bitter games against Seattle. "Feels like you go to the dentist's chair and three-and-a-half hours of getting root canal work done there.

"They're tough. These games are only for the tough."

Harbaugh said there was little need for pregame motivation before this one, then referred to a quote from Justin Smith that Harbaugh related to the team.

What was the quote?

"I don't know if I want to say it," Harbaugh said.

Justin, what was it?

"No, I didn't say nothing," Smith said in a manner that invited no further follow-up.

Donte?

"I don't think I'm allowed to say it," Whitner said. "It's a lot of vulgar words in there. But just know that it got a lot of guys going."

So it'll remain a 49ers state secret because Smith, the toughest 49er, wanted it that way.

Publicly, Smith said the theme was simple.

"We had to win," Smith said. "We had to win to make sure we get a wild-card spot and we won ...

"Just got to make sure we win up there one of these times. Probably see them again pretty soon."

The 49ers know this, hope this and maybe wince about this, too, and it's probably exactly the same for the Seahawks.

There is no way around each other. They will meet, there will be pain, and the 49ers on this day could smile through it, understanding more of everything is coming.

For more, see Tim Kawakami's Talking Points at blogs.mercurynews.com/kawakami. Contact him at tkawakami@mercurynews.com.

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/timkawakami.

INSIDE
  • 49ers get key win over rivals. PAGE 4
  • Thompson: 49ers open up playbook at right time. PAGE 4
  • Eric Wright gets interception after injury. PAGE 5

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