Seattle Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister was at the center of two critical plays against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night. They happened on consecutive downs, and neither of them went his team's way.
With 15 seconds remaining in the game and the Seahawks trailing the 49ers 26-21, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson moved to his left on 3rd-and-goal and targeted Hollister in the end zone. Hollister was covered by San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner, who made a lot of contact with the tight end as the pass fell incomplete. No penalty was given, however, nor was there a booth review.
After the game, the NFL's senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron defended both decisions, saying that a review actually was performed, but what occurred was, "nothing which rises to the level of a foul based on visual evidence." NBC Sports Bay Area analyst Donte Whitner echoed a similar sentiment.
"It's been going like that all year long," Whitner said of the controversial no-call. "Pass interference has not been replayed a lot this season, and when it has been replayed, it really hasn't been overturned. I don't think that it was a bad play."
While a pass interference penalty in that situation would have given Seattle 1st-and-Goal from the 1-yard-line, the Seahawks were the beneficiary of a questionable call that went against San Francisco on its previous drive. Had offensive linemen Ben Garland not been assessed a borderline-at-best personal foul, the 49ers likely would never have given Seattle the ball back.
"I thought that was a bad call because [Garland] thinks that everybody behind him is still running with the football, and he's just trying to make a block for the offensive guy that he thinks has the football," Whitner added. "So, I think it's give-and-take when it comes to penalties. It boiled down to the last play of the game. They had an opportunity to score and they just didn't."
Enter critical play No. 2.
On fourth down, Wilson went back to the same Hollister well, and Warner was involved again. But this time, it was rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw who was in the spotlight.
Wilson found Hollister on a quick inward slant, which he caught on the 1-yard-line. In shades of the 49ers' Week 15 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, it appeared the 49ers might lose in the last second by the thinnest of margins. Greenlaw, though, ensured history did not repeat itself, lowering a shoulder into Hollister to stop him just short of the goal line.
Game -- and regular season -- over.
After watching Falcons receiver Julio Jones just barely break the plane of the goal line two weeks earlier, Greenlaw used a different technique that prevented the same result.
"They teach you down there on the goal line in those situations -- in those scenarios when you're trying to keep a guy out of the end zone and it might be the last play of the game -- to not hit him low," Whitner explained. "Jimmie Ward hit [Jones] low at the end of the Atlanta game. Greenlaw stayed high, caught him at the right moment, put his head to the side -- didn't go helmet-to-helmet -- and kept him one centimeter out of the end zone.
"That's a great job of being on the details by a young guy, and flying around all day and coming out with 13 tackles in the football game."
It wasn't the first play of the 49ers' season that was decided by inches (or less), and moving into the playoffs, it likely won't be the last. But due to those two critical stops against Seattle and Hollister, San Francisco won't have to worry about that during wild-card weekend.