One of the biggest games of the 2012 NFL season is Sunday Night Football in Week 16 as the San Francisco 49ers head 800 miles due north to take on the Seattle Seahawks.
The 49ers (10-3-1) have clinched a playoff berth but are clinging tenuously to the division lead as the Seahawks continue to breathe down their collective neck. The defense is elite, we've known that, but the addition of Colin Kaepernick to the offense has made San Francisco a much tougher team to match up against. Kaepernick is able to make a lot of throws Alex Smith could not, but he also makes a lot of risky (or predetermined) throws that Smith wouldn't. He'll need to be at his best on Sunday night.
The Seahawks (9-5) are in almost the exact same situation as their divisional neighbors to the south. Their defense, for years, has been on the cusp of something great. Now, it's downright scary. Yet it's the offense in 2012 that is making the headlines. As the offensive line has gotten healthy and Marshawn Lynch has continued to go "Beast Mode" and earn his Skittles, now the quarterback position has become less of a liability. Russell Wilson is doing special things in the Pacific Northwest, and America will get a front-row seat in Week 16.
So who wins this Sunday Night Football matchup with playoff implications?
Key Storyline No. 1: Is Colin Kaepernick Ready for the 12th Man?
Since coming in as relief for a concussed Smith against the St. Louis Rams, Kaepernick is 4-1-1. He boasts a win over the New England Patriots (at Gillette) and over the Chicago Bears' once-vaunted defense. However, he has yet to get a divisional win.
Going to Seattle is a completely different experience from every other road atmosphere in the NFL. It isn't just loud. It is violently so—in ways Minnesota, New Orleans and New England could only dream about becoming.
If Kaepernick is going to get his first win against a divisional opponent, he'll need to be at his best, navigate the hostile atmosphere and make plays against one of the best defenses in the league. If he succeeds, the Niners can feel a lot more comfortable about their upcoming playoff race.
Key Storyline No. 2: Can Russell Wilson Vault to the Top of the Race for Rookie of the Year?
If Wilson played in New York, he'd have the Offensive Rookie of the Year award locked up already. What he's done in Seattle has been phenomenal, and it's largely being overlooked, as Andrew Luck and (especially) Robert Griffin III have more of a national profile.
Not for long.
In front of a national audience, the way he is playing right now, Wilson can make up some serious ground in the ROY race and even put himself in the driver's seat.
Of course, all of that will be less important to Wilson than being in the driver's seat in the NFC West race.
Keys for the San Francisco 49ers
The biggest challenge in this game is finding a way to run the ball effectively—even at the expense of running a balanced offense. If the Niners can move the chains without putting the ball in the air, they have a much better chance of winning.
Who Wins on Sunday Night?
When they go to the air, it has to be with a solid running game in place and off play-action. Kaepernick isn't the type of QB to sit back in shotgun and pick apart a defense like the Seahawks. If they try to make him that in Week 16, the Seahawks will take a couple of his passes the other way for six. No, big high-risk/high-reward shots down the field off play-action is how Kaepernick can be effective as a passer in Seattle. Still, it all goes back to the running game.
Defensively, it's much the same story as the Hawks' third-ranked rushing offense matches up with the Niners' third-ranked rushing defense. If the Niners are able to shut down Lynch and force Wilson to beat them through the air, they'll have a much better chance of shutting down the Seahawks offense as a whole.
Of course, shutting down Wilson brings a whole different set of challenges because of his mobility. Often, analysts will point to "spying" a mobile quarterback as the way to stop him. Nowadays, that couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, keeping contain and collapsing the pocket inside is the best way to stop a mobile QB. That means winning individual battles up front. If the Niners can't do that, they won't have a chance.
Keys for the Seattle Seahawks
All that stuff about keeping contain on Wilson, just read that again and substitute Kaepernick's name. Kaepernick is the 49ers offense right now, as the slow-and-steady, tortoise-like offensive performance of Smith has been infused with a shot of octane. Whether it's off read-option or just a busted play, the Seahawks need to make sure he doesn't get loose.
Of course, like Lynch, the Niners have a pretty great rushing attack with Frank Gore. If Gore is able to run, the quarterback won't even have to. In the first matchup between these two, Gore had 131 rushing yards alongside 51 receiving. That type of performance isn't ideal for the Seahawks defense.
On offense, fans will be looking for Pete Carroll to continue his Chip Kelly impersonation from last week and speed up the tempo of the game, but this isn't the Bills defense they're facing. The Seahawks will need a more measured approach, but keeping that up-tempo offense in their back pocket could help them put the Niners away if they get ahead.
Really, however, this game revolves around Wilson continuing to make big plays through the air and not making mistakes. Statistically, the Seahawks passing attack isn't great, but it's caught wildfire in recent weeks. If that trend continues, the Seahawks can win this game handily.
Bold Prediction: Teams Will Combine for 400 Yards Rushing
Overall, this game is setting up to be a rushing bonanza. Neither team is going to want to take huge chances by airing it out, and both teams have been experimenting with new ways of moving the ball along the ground.
Last time around, the Niners and Seahawks combined for 311 rushing yards, and both running backs were over the century mark. The difference here is that Kaepernick wasn't under center for that game. With Kaepernick pitching in and Wilson getting a few more yards, an extra 89 rushing yards between these two teams should be easy.
Player of the Game Prediction: Marshawn Lynch
Look for Lynch to have a decent day on the ground in terms of yardage, but to get into the end zone, as the Niners defense has been good in the red zone (much more so than their offense). Lynch has that fantastic ability of being able to churn through tackles and get extra yardage when schematically he should be stopped.
At home, in prime time, look for Lynch to go "Beast Mode" and lead the Seahawks to victory.
Final Score Prediction: Seahawks 24, 49ers 23
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.