Mullens marvelous as 49ers end Seattle’s dominance 26-23

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SANTA CLARA — On perhaps the best day of his life, Nick Mullens wandered into his postgame press conference wearing sneakers, gray jeans and a wrinkled shirt he looked like he bought secondhand.

“You look great, man,” kicker Robbie Gould said with a mischievous grin. “Way to dress up for this.”

Mullens’ face turned the color of a ripe tomato.

The 23-year-old quarterback had nothing to feel embarrassed about. He gave the most impressive performance of his brief NFL career, and the 49ers beat the Seahawks 26-23 in overtime. Beat them for the first time since 2013. Ended a 10-game losing streak against Seattle, a team that beat the 49ers by 27 points just two weeks ago. The 49ers’ record now is 4-10. They’ve won two in a row.

On Sunday, Mullens completed 20 of 29 passes (69 percent), threw for 275 yards and one touchdown and posted a quarterback rating of 110.6. His 275 passing yards ranked fifth-best among quarterbacks this week. Only Tom Brady (279 passing yards) Deshaun Watson (294 passing yards), Philip Rivers (313 passing yards) and Jared Goff (339 passing yards) threw for more yards than Mullens.

Serious company.

Mullens has started six games during his 49ers career, and his passer rating is 96. To put that in context, Jimmy Garoppolo has started eight games with the 49ers, and his quarterback rating 94.1.

“I think I can play in the league,” Mullens said. “I believe that.”

So do his teammates. Especially Richard Sherman.

“Mullens has stepped up to the moment week in and week out,” Sherman announced after the game. “He has shown he can play in this league. I just hope we can keep him, because teams need quarterbacks. This guy is not playing conservative football. He is making the right decisions and making good throws under pressure.

“He is playing like a top-half quarterback in this league. You’ve got guys out there who are not playing better football than Nick Mullens. He can be a starter for a lot of teams in this league.”

And he already is one of the 16 best quarterbacks in the NFL, according to Sherman. That’s what Sherman meant by a “top-half quarterback” — top half of the league.

But Mullens didn’t beat the Seahawks by himself. The entire 49ers team played well.

Richie James returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown during the first quarter to give the 49ers a 7-6 lead. This play represented the 49ers’ first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2011.

Later during the second quarter, Mullens threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Garrett Celek, who came into the game with more penalties (five) than catches (three) this season. The 49ers led 14-6 with 9:37 remaining in the second quarter after Celek’s touchdown.

But the 49ers would go on to score just nine more points during regulation time. The offense faded as pass protection broke down and receivers dropped key passes.

So, the defense carried the 49ers during the second half. DeForest Buckner recorded two sacks, including one with 6:05 remaining in the fourth quarter. Buckner now has 11 sacks this season. His previous career high was six.

“Getting to double digits, I knew I was capable of it,” Buckner said. “I’d like to thank most of my teammates. It’s not one guy. It’s the whole unit up front rushing as a team. Eventually if you rush as a team, someone will get rewarded.”

At the end of four quarters, the score was tied at 23.

During overtime, Buckner and the 49ers defense forced the Seahawks offense to go three and out. Then, the 49ers got the ball, and ran it down the Seahawks throats. Mullens never completed a pass during overtime — he threw one to Dante Pettis, who drew a 15-yard pass interference penalty.

The 49ers used a power running game, something they have not shown in the past, especially to close out games. Matt Breida had a 7-yard run, and Jeff Wilson Jr. had a 16-yard run. These runs set up the 49ers at the 18-yard line where Robbie Gould kicked a game-winning field goal on third down — his fourth field goal of the game.

Afterward, Kyle Shanahan gave Mullens tepid praise, which seems to be his M.O. when it comes to the second-year quarterback.

“Similar to the last few weeks,” Shanahan said, referring to Mullens’ performance against the Seahawks. “Very efficient, made the plays that were there. Made a few off-schedule plays too. Did a great job escaping the rush on a blitz one time when they brought more than we blocked. Was hoping we could make some of those plays at the end and not go to overtime. (The Seahawks) got us on a few (pass) protection issues though. Nick ended up holding onto the ball. At least (he didn’t turn) it over.”

Gould was much more enthusiastic about Mullens.

Gould entered the 49ers auditorium just as Mullens walked out. Gould is 36. Mullens is 23. He looks like Gould’s nephew.

A reporter asked Gould what he makes of the 49ers’ young quarterback.

“I wish everybody could have a camera on (Mullens) 24/7,” Gould said. “It would tell such an immense story of what (he) has meant, not only to this team, but the organization. He was on our practice squad all of last year, always teaching the young receivers the playbook. He’s really a coach. The kid has such an incredible story. He finally gets his chance to play and really has taken the reins. He is a true leader. He has played phenomenal. You cheer for guys like Nick Mullens.”

Raise a glass to the hard-working people, to the salt of the earth.

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