The second chapter in a trilogy is always the best. The Empire Strikes Back. Terminator 2. Godfather Part II. The Matrix Reloaded.
On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers will set out to avenge an embarrassing 29-3 loss they suffered against their archrivals early in the season. In their last two games at Seattle, the Niners have lost by a combined score of 71-16. But the rivalry now shifts back to Candlestick, where the Seahawks haven't won a game in six years.
Right now, as it stands, the 49ers are the only ones who can take down the Seahawks in a playoff showdown. Carolina already lost to Seattle at home during the first week of the season, the Saints might forfeit their division so they don't have to travel back to Washington and there's no chance that Dallas, Detroit or Philadelphia can win at CenturyLink Field. Nada.
The only shot the 49ers have of winning the NFC West is if they win on Sunday, and if the Seahawks lose to both the Giants and the Cardinals to close out the season. Both teams are still alive in the playoff race, so it's not an out-of-the-realm possibility.
But since the Seahawks have a better record against common teams, beating both the Saints and the Panthers, the Niners can only win a tiebreaker if Seattle loses to at least one divisional team this season. That means they're likely on the road for the entire playoffs, and if they want to prove they have any chance of winning in the valley of rain, despair and the 12th man, they're going to have to even up the score at home.
Three matchups determine whether the 49ers can get their biggest win of the season. Who better to break it down?
Probably everyone besides me, but I'm doing it anyway.
Anquan Boldin vs. Richard Sherman
This might actually work to Colin Kaepernick's advantage. With his primary target covered by one of the league's best cornerbacks, he'll have to look around the field for other receivers. They're there. That's the first time we've been able to say that all season.
One of the worst games of Kaepernick's career came right after he lit up the Packers for 400 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1. In that contest, he targeted Boldin 17 times for a total of 208 yards.
Against the Seahawks, Sherman limited Boldin to just one reception for seven yards. The 49ers looked around for someone else who could make a play, and the sacks and the turnovers scribbled up the stat sheet faster than a polygraph needle.
Now that Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis are back on the field, Kaepernick will have a much easier time finding someone open if Boldin is covered up, though I suspect he won't give Sherman the Darrelle Revis treatment and refuse to even glance in the direction of his top wideout.
Boldin is an extremely physical receiver who is fearless to Sherman's bullying tactics, and if he can find a way to get open, the Seahawks' secondary could collapse at the seams.
Michael Crabtree vs. Byron Maxwell
Maxwell was undeniably impressive in his first start of the season against the Saints on Monday. That means Kaepernick will throw the ball in his direction on Sunday. A lot. He'll throw at him when he's lined up across the slot. He'll throw at him when he's in zone coverage. He'll throw at him when he's leaving the parking lot eating a churro.
Yes, Maxwell helped shut down Drew Brees and New Orleans' second-ranked passing offense, but he'll face his biggest challenge of the year shadowing Michael Crabtree. While Crabtree is still a few weeks away from becoming the lethal receiver who torched secondaries after Kaepernick was named the starting quarterback, his presence was felt last week against the Rams.
He was aggressive from the start, drawing two penalties for his physical play downfield and fighting to get separation from his defender on every snap. His 60-yard reception in the third quarter—the 49ers' longest play from scrimmage this year—showcased all of his strengths: a slick double-move to shake coverage, a sweet over-the-shoulder catch and a couple of jukes coupled with a stiff arm to gain another five yards.
Jerry Rice watched it all from the sidelines wearing a dark suit and shades. Always looking ready to get back on the field of play, No. 80 settled to see a younger version of himself dazzle the fans at the 'Stick.
If Maxwell can't hang with Crabtree, Kaepernick might have another 200-yard game.
What, 300? Don't be silly.
Alex Boone vs. Chris Clemons/Cliff Avril
While the 49ers finally have the receiving corps intact, their offensive line remains in flux after Joe Staley went down with a sprained MCL last week. San Francisco still hasn't had their starting 11 on the field once this season, and it will be up to their reserves and roving veterans to pick up the slack until that dream becomes a reality.
Boone did a tremendous job protecting Kaepernick's blind side after Staley left the game, keeping one of the NFL's top pass-rushers, Robert Quinn, in check for the rest of the afternoon. Now he'll have the task of taking on Seattle's defensive end tandem of Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril, which will be crucial in opening up holes for the run game and giving Kaepernick time to throw in the pocket.
As one of the many mountains on the 49ers' O-line, the 6'8" Boone (nicknamed the Rhino) is a physical mismatch against almost anyone on the field, but his ability to adjust to speedy pass-rushers like Avril makes him nearly as versatile as defensive stars like Justin Smith and Patrick Willis.
By his own admission, he prefers the gritty, old-fashioned, punch-em-in-the-mouth football, and the Niners are going to need that against a Seahawks team with a bigger swagger than the geek who stole the prom queen.
Expect a busy weekend for the guys on the field wearing the zebra stripes. And the security guys in the stands. Those Seahawk jerseys stand out from a mile away.
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