Not too long before kickoff, Marshawn Lynch went up to his backup with a message that might reverberate through the Seahawks long beyond Sunday.
“Look, young’un, I’m going to pass you the torch,” the NFL’s rushing and touchdown leader since 2011 told Thomas Rawls, who was stretching.
Rawls then dutifully took that torch and burned through the San Francisco 49ers with it.
The undrafted rookie started because Lynch missed his third game in a month, this time with an abdominal injury that has him heading to Philadelphia to see a specialist.
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Rawls didn’t just take advantage of the chance, he dominated it. His 209 yards rushing eclipsed Curt Warner’s 32-year-old Seahawks rookie record.
Rawls ran for one touchdown and and added 46 more yards and another touchdown receiving.
All that and two touchdown catches by fellow rookie Tyler Lockett lifted the Seahawks improbably back into the NFC playoff race with a 29-13 victory over the torched 49ers at CenturyLink Field.
“Amazing,” Rawls said, five times in less than 2½ minutes. “So gratifying.”
For the entire team. Maybe for Seattle’s uneven season.
“We are all just fired up about what Thomas Rawls did,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “How tough he was is something we really love.”
Seattle’s Russell Wilson completed 24 of 29 passes, a career-best completion rate for a game at 82.8 percent. That followed a 14 for 32 outing the previous weekend in the loss to Arizona.
“I ignore the noise,” Wilson said after he threw for 260 yards and three touchdowns for the Seahawks (5-5).
They have beaten tattered San Francisco twice in a month by a combined 49-16 — and four straight times by a combined 85-26.
With Atlanta’s loss at home to Matt Hasselbeck and Indianapolis, Seattle somehow — through all its blown late leads and problems on its offensive line — is only one game behind the Falcons for the sixth and final seed in the conference playoffs.
Six games remain in the regular season, including this coming Sunday for the Seahawks at home against Pittsburgh (6-4).
“What’s really neat is that we get to come back again, we come home again next week,” Carroll said. “So, I love it.”
What wasn’t to love this Sunday — for the first time in a while — for the Seahawks?
Rawls’ romp on Lynch-like cutbacks and bulls through would-be tacklers became the second-best in Seahawks’rushing history. Shaun Alexander had 266 yards through a rainstorm against Oakland in 2001 at Husky Stadium.
Not bad for a former Michigan backup who transferred to Central Michigan last year. Seattle signed Rawls moments after no one spent any of the league’s 256 picks in May’s draft on him.
“To be named with those guys?” he said, with a huge grin. “It’s amazing because as you are young, you grow up watching these people and you hear these names. To be actually on the front stage of it and be a part of it, it’s a great feeling.”
So was running over San Francisco cornerback Tramaine Brock on Seattle’s second offensive play. The 5-foot-9, 215-pound Rawls dragged the 5-foot-10, 197-pound Brock about 10 yards to end a 12-yard catch-and-run on a drive that finished with Wilson finding Lockett on a 24-yard TD strike.
Rawls’ play was positively Lynch-like. Pre-2015 Lynch, that is.
“That’s the stuff that jumped out when we were watching him as a college player,” Carroll said. “He’ll attack guys down the field.”
Afterward, the rugged Rawls beamed.
“That was an amazing play,” Rawls said. “I think he thought I was going to go out of bounds, but little did he know I’m not running out of bounds. I’m looking for contact.
“I’ve never ran out of bounds. It’s just my whole makeup, my whole mentality. I think I would feel less of a person to just run out of bounds.”
Sunday was Rawls’ third 200-yard rushing day in 13 months. He had two last year at Central Michigan.
Yes, that was in the Mid-American Conference. Yet he is proving he could be Lynch’s heir. As in, right now, for a Seattle push to the playoffs.
Even though the 49ers were likely surprised, Rawls wasn’t. He’d rushed for 104 yards in September in a win over Chicago and 169 yards in October’s overtime loss at Cincinnati, when Lynch was injured with calf and hamstring issues.
Rawls’ Sunday performance was 56 yards better than the best rushing day for Lynch in his nine-year career. Rawls’ 255 total yards were 78 more than Lynch’s career best for total yards in a game.
Rawls finished with the third-highest total yards of offense in Seahawks’ history. Only Alexander’s 273 yards that night in 2001 and Steve Largent’s 261 total yards on Oct. 18, 1987, against Detroit were better.
“Given the opportunity, you are either going to rise to the opportunity or you can go back,” Rawls said. “I just took advantage of every opportunity.”
The Seahawks raced to a 20-0 lead over the 49ers in the first half, finding a cure for what had been ailing them all season.
The Seahawks were converting third downs at a rate of 36 percent entering Sunday, 21st-best in the NFL. They converted their first four against a ransacked 49ers’ defense.
Seattle was last in the league in touchdowns inside the red zone, with seven on 20 trips (35 percent). They began Sunday 2 for 2 while taking that huge lead.
Rawls’ 2-yard run in the first quarter made it 13-0. Steven Hauschka missed the extra point off the outside of the right upright, his first true miss in 40 attempts at points-after-touchdown.
It reached 20-0 on Lockett’s 11-yard touchdown catch midway through the second quarter.
The total yards were 259-38 in Seattle’s favor. Then the 49ers scored on their final drive before halftime to cut their deficit to 20-7.
San Francisco found some success by using tight ends for big plays, continuing a Seattle problem on defense this season. That got the 49ers within 20-10 and 23-13 in the third quarter.
But suddenly, thanks to breaks in the schedule and conference, the Seahawks are left just on game out of a playoff spot. With Rawls, they feel that they have a back that can lead a Lynch- and 2014-like revival.
“All I know is we have a huge game next week, and we have to get going. We need to find the consistency that gives you a chance to make some noise later on,” Carroll said.
“We’re OK about starting now. We like to start now, if that’s what it is. … We like what we’re seeing right now, so we’ll see if we can build on it. We have a chance to have a good team. We still do.”
MOST YARDS RUSHING IN SEAHAWKS’ HISTORY
266 — Shaun Alexander (Nov. 11, 2001 vs. Oakland)
209 — Thomas Rawls* (Nov. 22, 2015 vs. San Francisco)
207 — Curt Warner* (Nov. 27, 1983 vs. Kansas City in overtime)
201 — Shaun Alexander (Nov. 27, 2006 vs. Green Bay)
* — achieved as a rookie
MOST TOTAL YARDS FROM SCRIMMAGE SEAHAWKS’ HISTORY
273 — Shaun Alexander (266 rushing, 7 receiving; Nov. 11, 2001 vs. Oakland)
261 — Steve Largent (0 rushing, 261 receiving; Oct. 18, 1987 vs. Detroit)
255 — Thomas Rawls (209 rushing, 46 receiving; Nov. 22, 2015)