5 Things San Francisco 49ers Must Do to Clinch NFC West in Week 16
One way to accomplish this goal is to simply out-will the opponent, something head coach Jim Harbaugh certainly feels his team did in the first meeting of the year between the two divisional rivals.
"That was the most physical 30 minutes of football in the second half that I have ever seen our football team play," Harbaugh said. "It's a sweet win. It was a real football fight, and our guys won it."
The 13-7 victory in Week 7 gave the Niners sole possession of first place in the NFC West for the first time in 2012. Now holding a one-and-a-half-game lead over Seattle, a loss at CenturyLink Field Sunday night cannot take that away. But it would certainly make things a little more interesting than SF would prefer heading into the final week of the season.
Outside of simply winning the physical battle, here are five things the 49ers must do to clinch the NFC West title against the Seahawks in Week 16.
Be Prepared for the Sneakiness of Russell Wilson
The 49ers have won four straight over the Seahawks, but that won't count for much when the two take the field for Sunday Night Football.
Thanks in part to outscoring the Cardinals and Bills 108-17 in its last two wins, Seattle is now No. 2 behind the 49ers in point differential. The 'Hawks are scoring an even 25 points per game and allowing only 15.6 PPG.
Perhaps the main reason Seattle has won five of its last six is the recent play of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson has progressed considerably as a signal-caller since the first time these two teams met. He had thrown five interceptions and just two TDs in three road games before traveling to San Francisco in Week 7. Since that loss, the third-round pick has finished with a passer rating of 96.8 or higher in all but one game, the 58-0 shellacking of the Cardinals in which he threw just 13 passes.
At home in 2012, Wilson has 12 TD passes to just one interception. Last week against Buffalo he ran for 92 yards and three scores. Needless to say, the 5'11", 206-pound QB can boogie.
But the Niners have the best front seven in all of football. It has contained Wilson once and can do it again. The youngster is clearly playing with a whole new level of confidence, however, and Pete Carroll is quickly learning his new toy can beat defenses with both his arm and his legs.
NFL sack leader Aldon Smith will have his hands full. He and the rest of the 49ers must keep a close eye on Wilson without forgetting the beast in the Seahawks backfield, Marshawn Lynch.
Easier said than done, but the 49ers have shown they are capable of anything if they put their minds to it.
Feed Frank Gore Early
Feed Frank early and often.
The 49ers' all-time leading rusher carried the ball just six times in the first half against Seattle in Week 7. The Niners found themselves trailing 6-3 at the break.
In the same breath as saying San Francisco can't underestimate Seattle's dual-threat QB, the Seahawks will be busy trying to contain 49ers' signal-caller Colin Kaepernick, who just unleashed four TD passes on the Patriots, in Foxborough.
A healthy dose of Frank Gore in the first half will remind the 'Hawks the 49ers have a beast of their own in the backfield. Gore has been on fire this season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 79.9 yards per game.
San Francisco has the best group of run blockers in football, and it dominated the Seahawks in the first meeting when given the opportunity. Gore ran for 131 yards on just 16 carries when all was said and done.
With just two games left before the playoffs and backup RB Kendall Hunter lost for the season, it is imperative to keep Gore fresh for another playoff run, of course. But with the division title and a potential first-round bye at stake, it would be silly not to ride one of the horses that put the 49ers in this position.
An effective Gore out of the gate will help keep any unneeded pressure off of the young Kaepernick in such a hostile environment. Rookie RB LaMichael James has been a bright spot since making his debut two weeks ago and should continue to help out in place of the injured Hunter as well.
Exploit the Absence of Brandon Browner
The 50-17 score won't show it, but Richard Sherman struggled mightily in Seattle's Week 15 win over the Bills in an attempt to replace Brandon Browner as the team's No. 1 cornerback.
Browner is in the middle of a four-game suspension being served for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy. That leaves Sherman, who could be suspended for the same reason should he lose his appeal (to be heard Friday, as confirmed by NFL Insider Jason La Canfora per CBS Sports Senior Blogger Will Brinson), as the No. 1 CB on the roster.
Bills' QB Ryan Fitzpatrick targeted Sherman nine times, completing six passes for 89 yards and a TD, according to Pro Football Focus (paid membership required). It amounted to a passer rating of 135.9 on passes headed Sherman's direction, the best rating any QB has posted when going at him all season.
Stevie Johnson, Buffalo's top wideout, burned Sherman for 69 yards and a score on four catches in seven targets.
Perhaps this means Sherman isn't capable of covering an opponent's No. 1 receiver. Or, maybe he just had a bad day. Either way, he will definitely have his hands full with Michael Crabtree in Week 16 if he avoids a four-game ban.
Crabtree is playing the best football of his NFL career. That much was evident when he torched the Patriots for 107 yards and two TDs on seven receptions in a 41-34 Week 15 win. The fourth-year WR now has 868 yards on the year and 301 over his last three games.
Seattle was forced to start rookie and sixth-round pick Jeremy Lane opposite Sherman a week ago. The youngster played surprisingly well, but was targeted just seven times. The 49ers are much deeper at the wide receiver position than Buffalo and more equipped to take advantage of an inexperienced DB like Lane.
Protect the Pigskin
San Francisco's carelessness with the football on a rain-soaked night at Gillette Stadium was a concerning sight.
The wet, wintry conditions were hardly favorable, but Kaepernick and the 49ers struggled to protect the pigskin all night. Multiple snap exchanges under center fell to the ground. Delanie Walker coughed up the ball early in the game.
Even the typically sure-handed Ted Ginn Jr. muffed a punt. He bobbled another.
Luckily, the 49ers' defense was able to force twice as many turnovers as the offense committed. But that won't be so easy against the Seahawks. SF forced just one turnover against Seattle earlier this year and the 'Hawks have just 17 giveaways in 2012.
The 49ers haven't made a habit out of turning the ball over, either. But they will be playing on the road in a hostile environment for a second straight week, this time against a defense that doesn't bend nearly as much as New England's.
Points are typically tough to come by when these two meet. One bad bounce could be the difference between the 49ers winning the NFC West and having to beat the Cardinals in Week 17 to keep from losing it.
Silence the 12th Man Early and Throughout
This one is pretty self-explanatory.
Seattle plays in what I believe to be the loudest stadium in the NFL. It was designed to contain the noise and that's exactly what it does. The Seahawks are 6-0 at home and allowing just 11.5 PPG in those wins, so clearly it works well for them.
Colin Kaepernick proved in Week 15 he could handle adversity and help will the 49ers to victory, overcoming a furious rally from Tom Brady and the Patriots late in the game. Such a performance leads one to believe he'll be ready for this weekend's test, but the difference between New England's defense and Seattle's cannot be understated.
San Francisco needs to start fast and silence the 'Hawks' "12th man" early. No matter what stadium you're in, a quick lead will eliminate crowd noise 10 times out of 10.
The fans can't ride a wave of momentum if there isn't one to be rode.
The 49ers just need to play their brand of smart, physical football for four quarters. If they do, a win and a second NFC West championship in as many years will be had, and celebration among the 49ers Faithful will ensue.