With only a few more weeks left in the season, the San Francisco 49ers truly control their own playoff destiny.
It's a good place to be.
The Seahawks, coming off an epic home win against the New Orleans Saints, fought hard against the narrative that they were vulnerable on the road, but that's exactly how they looked against an increasingly physical Jim Harbaugh-coached 49ers squad.
The two teams spent most of the matchup feeling each other out. The old boxing analogy works well for these two heavyweights as they traded jabs for most of the game until a long Frank Gore run in the fourth quarter provided the haymaker both teams had been looking for.
There's no fitting narrative for last week's Seattle win other than this weekend's slate of games. How the Seahawks and Saints compete against the 49ers and Carolina Panthers, respectively, provides a fantastic coda for what that game meant, not only because it's another great set of matchups, but it gave us Seattle on the road and New Orleans at home.
Home-field advantage can't be the only thing that matters among the NFL's best team this season, can it?
Now, Seahawks fans, I know what you're thinking. Frankly, it's what a lot of people are thinking—what does this game matter if the road to the Super Bowl still has to go through Seattle?
It's a valid point, but not so fast, my friends.
The playoffs tend to be a different animal than the regular season. A whole other set of emotions and needed character traits take over. Teams that have the "been there before" attitude can usually manage their feelings in different ways. Veteran teams with veteran passers somehow find a new gear in January. Experienced coaches understand how to temper those high-wire emotions with the need for calm and control.
In short: Home-field advantage in the playoffs means something, but it doesn't mean everything.
In 2012, a No. 2 seed and a No. 4 seed advanced to the Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons, with only one home loss on the season, found a way to lose at home in the playoffs. The Denver Broncos, too, lost at home to the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens after just one loss there in the entire year.
Does home-field advantage disappear? Certainly not, but don't believe it is some magical charm.
The 49ers chipped away at some of the Seahawks' armor and have set themselves up well for their own championship aspirations.
Looking ahead at the 49ers' schedule, it's a winnable slate of games: at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, home at Atlanta and then a tough road finale against the dangerous Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers are almost certainly locked into a wild-card spot, but if they can just go chalk and go either 3-0 or 2-1 to finish the season, they're into the postseason and an awfully difficult out for whoever they have to face.
From there, the possibilities are almost endless. With too much of the season left to actually start making these plans, it seems feasible that the 49ers would be traveling to somewhere like Philadelphia or Detroit—whichever wins the crapshoots that are the NFC East and North.
"Momentum" is one of those impossibly quantifiable memes in sports that never seems to die, but there is some value to identifying teams that are peaking or gaining their confidence at the right time. The 49ers have won three straight since playing two good teams close in losses (New Orleans and Carolina). More importantly, they've got wide receiver Michael Crabtree back to round out their passing offense.
It's worth noting, too, that the Seahawks defense had only given up 19 points or more five times all season long coming into this game. So, while it's not the best point total in the world, it's respectable. It showed that the 49ers are moving the ball better in Week 14 than they were a few weeks ago.
Again, this isn't "momentum," but maybe it's getting the right players back at the right time.
Finally, if there's one adjective that could describe the two teams on the field in San Francisco this week, it would be "well-coached." Though there was some chippiness, and neither team seems that fond of the other, both Seattle and San Francisco do many of the little things well to put their players in the best possible situations to win.
Earlier in the season, that didn't look to be the case with the 49ers. There have been mental lapses. There has been stupidity at times where it has hurt the team. It wasn't characteristic of the Harbaugh-coached team we got to know last season, but this late-season iteration of the 49ers is much closer to what was expected.
If the 49ers are simply able to handle their own destiny, continue to stay healthy and keep playing the kind of football they're known for, they might be more than just on the playoff track, they could be driving the train.
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