On Sunday night, the Seattle Seahawks will host the San Francisco 49ers in a battle that could very well determine the immediate future of the NFC West.
The Seahawks and 49ers are widely expected to be the two top contenders for the divisional crown in 2013. Both were playoff teams a season ago, and each walked away with a Week 1 victory to kick off the 2013 season.
The winning team in this matchup could find itself in the driver's seat of the most hotly contested division in football, making this one of the most exciting, influential games of Week 2.
49ers Major Storyline No 1: Colin Kaepernick's Role at Quarterback
Heading into the 2013 season, it seemed as if the entire league was searching for a way to slow the new breed of read-option quarterback.
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the poster boy for the read-option last season, as he proved that a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback could indeed take a team to the Super Bowl.
During the 2012 playoffs, Kaepernick torched opposing defenses, both on the ground and through the air, passing for 798 yards, rushing for 264 more and scoring seven total touchdowns.
The Seahawks appear well-suited to defend the read-option, as the team practices against its own dynamic quarterback in second-year pro Russell Wilson. However, Kaepernick proved in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers that he is perfectly comfortable sitting in the pocket and picking apart defenses with his arm.
Kaepernick carried the ball just seven times against Green Bay for 22 yards and rarely ran plays out of the read-option.
Instead, Kaepernick led a more traditional dropback attack, in which he completed 27 of 39 pass attempts for 412 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers.
The Seahawks have developed a reputation as one of the league's most dominant defensive teams (ranked fourth in 2012, allowing 306.2 yards per game), and it will be interesting to see how Kaepernick is able to attack, and adapt to, what he sees defensively on Sunday night.
49ers Major Storyline No. 2: San Francisco vs. the NFC West
While the 49ers did manage to become one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL last season, San Francisco was not nearly as dominant within its own division as against other opponents.
The 49ers won just half of their games against NFC West opponents last season (the team finished with a 3-2-1 divisional record), while going 8-2 against teams outside of the division.
Interestingly, the St. Louis Rams finished the year with the best divisional record (4-1-1) while the other playoff team to come out of the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks (3-3), matched the 49ers' divisional win total.
All four teams in the division appear to be improved this season, and if the 49ers wish to guarantee themselves a playoff spot at the end of the year, they will have to play better than .500 football against their divisional rivals.
Their first opportunity to do so comes Sunday night against the Seahawks.
49ers' Most Important Matchup: Anquan Boldin vs. Seahawks Secondary
While much of the attention Sunday will undoubtedly revolve around Kaepernick, it could be the young quarterback's newest—and possibly most dangerous—weapon that makes the real difference against the mighty Seahawks defense.
Former Baltimore Raven Anquan Boldin announced his presence during his 49ers debut last week, hauling in 13 receptions for 208 yards and a touchdown against the Packers.
Even in his 11th season, Boldin has shown he can still dictate coverage and be a playmaker. While Kaepernick will have the ability to change up the offense from under center, it will likely be Boldin who truly opens up things against the Seattle defense.
It won't be easy, however, as the Seahawks boast a talented secondary full of elite pass-defenders like Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman.
Seattle must still be concerned with Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and the 49ers' other weapons, but if the Seahawks can prevent Boldin from having another big day, it will go a long way toward limiting San Francisco's ability to stretch the field and dictate the pace of the game.
Seahawks Major Storyline No. 1: Can Russell Wilson Emerge From Kaepernick's Shadow?
Though it is still early in both players' careers, one gets the feeling that Kaepernick and Wilson will be linked together for the rest of their playing days in the NFL.
A heated division rivalry provides the perfect backdrop for the two talented quarterbacks as they compete to silence stereotypes and lead their respective teams to greatness.
While Kaepernick has often been seen as too unconventional to last in the NFL, Wilson (5'11", 206 pounds) was initially seen as too small to ever succeed at the professional level.
In their first seasons as starting NFL quarterbacks, both players proved their doubters wrong.
Kaepernick, however, did so by clinching a division title and leading his team to the game's biggest stage.
While the Seahawks are currently regarded as legitimate Super Bowl contenders this season, many seem to view Kaepernick as the superior quarterback.
Of course, it is important to remember that Wilson and the Seahawks won the last head-to-head matchup in a 42-13 blowout.
Kaepernick continues to shine in the spotlight—especially after last week's high-profile matchup against the Packers—while Wilson quietly goes about his business as a successful signal-caller to lesser fanfare (if you missed the Seahawks-Panthers game in Week 1, it was a good one).
However, Wilson will have an opportunity on Sunday to steal a little bit of that spotlight by outperforming Kaepernick, notching a win for his team and going up 2-0 against the man who will probably be his biggest rival over the next decade.
Seahawks Major Storyline No. 2: Re-establishing the Ground Game
For all of the attention being paid to the budding rivalry between between Kaepernick and Wilson, it is important to remember just how valuable the ground game was for both of these young quarterbacks in 2012.
The rushing attack was an especially important weapon for the Seahawks, who ranked third in the league with 161.2 yards per game a season ago.
Along with a stout defense, the ability to move the football on the ground and control the clock was a major reason why Wilson and the Seahawks were able to have so much success, especially late in the season.
Last week, however, the Seattle rushing offense appeared to be a shadow of its former self, totaling just 70 yards against the Carolina defense.
Star running back Marshawn Lynch, who rushed for 1,590 yards a season ago, totaled just 43 yards on 17 attempts against the Panthers, while Wilson, who gained 489 yards on the ground in 2012, carried the ball five times for a mere seven yards.
Re-establishing the running game won't be easy against the 49ers, who allowed just 63 rushing yards to the Packers in Week 1. However, it may be necessary in order for the Seahawks to keep the San Francisco defense honest and to keep Kaepernick and the 49ers' potent offense off the field as much as possible.
Seahawks' Most Important Matchup: Seattle's O-Line vs. the Smiths
Seattle's offense will face two monumental obstacles on Sunday night: 49ers defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Aldon Smith.
Though relatively young, Aldon Smith has already carved out a reputation as one of the league's premier pass-rushers, and he doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The two-year veteran notched 1.5 sacks last week on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and has the potential to make life miserable for Wilson on Sunday.
Justin, the elder Smith, doesn't receive quite the same national attention as Aldon, but the 12-year veteran remains one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the game against both the run and the pass.
Seattle's offensive line, led by left tackle Russell Okung, will have its hands full with the Smith duo on Sunday, and this could be one of the most pivotal battles on the field throughout the game.
For Seattle to be successful, the offensive line will have to protect Wilson and open holes for Lynch and the Seahawks rushing attack, and that means keeping the Smiths at bay.
The addition of Boldin makes the 49ers an even more dangerous team than it was last year. It also gives San Francisco the offensive edge over the Seahawks (which might not be the case were Percy Harvin healthy).
In a game that features two top-tier defenses such as these, every offensive advantage will count. While home-field advantage will help keep the Seahawks in it until the very end, the 49ers squeak out a win in this brutal thriller.
Final Score Prediction: 49ers 27, Seahawks 23