Coming into 2012 I picked the Seattle Seahawks to win the NFC West and took untold amounts of grief from San Francisco 49ers fans across the country (...particularly in the B/R home offices in San Francisco). I was told repeatedly how crazy I was, how I clearly didn't watch football (an all-time favorite Internet insult) and that the 49ers would not only win the division, they would do so comfortably and with little resistance from the Seahawks, or anyone else in the division for that matter.
Well, after a big comeback win against the New England Patriots for the Seahawks, coupled with an embarrassing loss to the New York Giants for the 49ers, both teams sit at 4-2 heading into Thursday night's showdown in Candlestick.
Needless to say, the Seahawks winning the division doesn't sound so crazy anymore.
Now, obviously Thursday night's game is big, but the winner doesn't lock up the division by any means. Yet you also can't dismiss the importance of this game not only within the division but within the conference. The NFC has been much more dynamic than the AFC so far in 2012, and there will most likely be a few worthy teams on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Every game is precious in that regard, and this one is no different.
The last time these two teams met, back in Week 16 of the 2011 regular season, the Seahawks got off to just about the best start they could have hoped for, getting up on the 49ers early with an opening-drive touchdown. However, as was often the case in 2011, the Seahawks were unable to hold the lead.
What was not usually the case in 2011 was the Seahawks defense getting gashed in the running game, which they most certainly were that day. 49ers running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter combined for 156 yards on the ground that day.
You have to think the 49ers will try to use that same recipe Thursday night, especially when you look at the way the 49ers passing game was unable to get anything going last week against the New York Giants.
Against the Giants, the 49ers gave up six—yes—six sacks. Obviously that's somewhat a product of being behind for a good part of the game, meaning the Giants were able to pin their ears back and get after Niners quarterback Alex Smith. But don't discount that the 49ers offensive line was simply overrun at times by the Giants' talented defensive line.
The Seahawks defensive front, while perhaps not as well known as the Giants', is extremely talented and more than capable of getting after the quarterback. They've helped make life miserable for Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Tom Brady already this year.
Alex Smith and the 49ers offense will need to stay ahead of the sticks by running the ball the way they did last year and keep things in manageable down and distances for Smith, or this could get ugly quick for San Francisco.
The 49ers will also be dealing with a bevy of injuries (who isn't at this point in the NFL calendar?), the most concerning of which will be the concussion suffered by left tackle Joe Staley against the Giants.
It would be a pretty big surprise if Staley is able to play four days after suffering a concussion. However, on Monday he reportedly saw the independent neurologist as part of the NFL's new protocol on head trauma (per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee), and on Tuesday Staley said he is symptom-free and hoped to play against the Seahawks (via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle).
If Staley is not cleared to play, right guard Alex Boone will make his first career start at left tackle and veteran Leonard Davis will fill in for Boone at right guard. Heading into this game at less than full strength along the offensive line would obviously be less than ideal.
The Seahawks, in some ways, have mirrored the 49ers' plan when it comes to building their team. They have focused on building a formidable defense, and they have certainly succeeded.
Where they fell short in 2011 was at the quarterback position. Running back Marshawn Lynch, who ran for 107 yards and a touchdown the last time these two teams faced each other, will no doubt continue to be the focal point of the offense. But rookie Russell Wilson will be counted on to stretch the field off play-action and to make plays outside the pocket.
Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell did a good job of rolling Wilson away from Chandler Jones on boot-action plays against the Patriots, and you can expect more of the same against Justin Smith and the 49ers front.
As for the Niners' own quarterback, one thing he did very well against Seattle last year, and that he had done very well for most of the year prior to facing the Giants, is checking into plays at the line of scrimmage that took advantage of a crowded box due to the Seahawks bringing extra defenders into the box to attempt to slow down Gore.
Look at this play from last year's matchup and notice how tight the offensive formation is, and how the defense counters by tightening its own personnel. This is 2nd-and-10 on the Seattle 35, early on in the first quarter.
Smith makes a check at the line, noticing he has a safety, Earl Thomas, down in the box. Seattle's strong safety, Cam Chancellor, is actually the lone high safety. Smith gets Chancellor to take a couple false steps away from where he intends to throw the ball by looking to his left.
That is all the time he needs. Smith comes back and throws for tight end Vernon Davis, who has gotten behind cornerback Richard Sherman, who is playing a zone drop, watching the quarterback all the way and losing track of Davis' depth.
The only problem? Smith misses the throw, taking it too far outside and leading Davis into the sideline. This happened a few times against the Seahawks, and it kept Seattle in the game. If the 49ers are going to get back to putting up big points, like we saw against the Bills and Jets the last few weeks, Smith needs to stick those throws. This Seahawks defense is too good not to take advantage of big-play opportunities when they present themselves.
Obviously, there's a lot more to this matchup, on both sides of the ball for both teams. But you can bet this game will come down to whichever team is able to control the line of scrimmage and keep their offense in advantageous down and distances. Third-and-long is not a friend of either of these quarterbacks.
This could be a statement game for both teams. The 49ers want to show that the embarrassment against the Giants was just a bad day at the office and get back to bullying people. The Seahawks want to prove they are ready to take the next step and have the Niners looking up at them and chasing them in the standings for a change.
Can the Seahawks unseat the 49ers as the team to beat in the NFC West? Yes, they can.
Will they? I can't wait to find out.