Russell Wilson will have to watch his back against the Niners linebackers.
The Seattle Seahawks and their "12th Man" in the stands will host NFC West rivals the San Francisco 49ers to decide the NFC Championship on Jan. 19, and fans could not ask for a better showdown. Both teams are led by sensational young quarterbacks, and they will both be tested by specific defensive units that boast three Pro Bowlers each.
Each team is riding an avalanche of momentum into the game, and they split their season series. The 49ers prevailed at home over Seattle 19-17 on Dec. 8, but they got trounced at CenturyLink Field back on Sept. 15 by a 29-3 score.
The Niners have won eight straight and 13 of their last 15 games. Those losses came at the hands of two playoff teams with the combined margin of defeat being four points. Since Christmas 2011, the Seahawks have lost precisely one home game.
With the two squads so evenly matched, let's examine the difference-makers that will help send their team to the Super Bowl, namely the wunderkind quarterbacks and six smashing Pro Bowlers on defense.
Whiz Kid QBs
Colin Kaepernick was selected with the 36th overall pick in the 2011 draft after putting up gaudy numbers at WAC school Nevada. Russell Wilson was the 75th overall pick out of Wisconsin in 2012 and was maligned by some as too short to be an NFL QB at 5'11".
It's important to remember just how swift their parallel rises to prominence have been. Already, Wilson has two Pro Bowl nods. Kaepernick has a Super Bowl appearance and nearly a championship ring, but his post-blackout comeback attempt ran out of time. A win on Sunday will give one of the youngsters major bragging rights over his division rival and a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Each head coach was full of effusive praise for the opposing quarterback. As Niners coach Jim Harbaugh told Doug Farrar of SI.com about Wilson:
He’s a fantastic player. A wonderful, wonderful player, competitor. Skills of arm talent, mobility. Great field awareness. Understands the scrambling lanes, the escape routes out of the pocket. And then, that feel that only so many quarterbacks have had that have ever really played the game to extend plays. So, a lot of great qualities. A lot of wonderful qualities about him.
Despite Harbaugh's ragged syntax, it's clear that the Niners have spent tortured days and nights game-planning for Wilson's skill set. However, Wilson was underwhelming against the Saints as he completed nine passes for just 103 yards and zero TDs. Now, he'll be looking to bounce back against a significantly tougher defense.
The status of Percy Harvin (concussion) for the game could significantly impact Seattle's plan for the offensive attack, but it still has solid receiving options in Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate.
Carroll said Harvin banged head on turf on hit number two, said hopes he'll be back by next week.— Liz Mathews 710 ESPN (@Liz_Mathews) January 12, 2014
Seattle coach Pete Carroll was similarly in awe of Kaepernick:
He’s shown a tremendous range of ability. He can run it like crazy—he’s a big, strong, fast guy that can run and get out and strike you dead. He’s got a big arm. They like to use it and work the down-the-field stuff and they mix their quick game in and their little control stuff too. So that gives you a variety of things that they do off of their run game.
Kaepernick rushed for 87 yards on nine carries in the first meeting with Seattle, but he was held to 31 yards on nine carries in the second game. He also faces the league's top-ranked pass defense.
Each young signal-caller will be thoroughly tested, and the defenders doing the testing are the next difference-makers.
They don't call them the "Legion of Boom" for nothing. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman marauded against the powerful New Orleans Saints offense, which couldn't muster anything until it was too late. No wonder all three got invitations to Hawaii.
The physical and speedy defensive backs helped hold All-Universe tight end Jimmy Graham to one catch for eight yards on six targets. The Saints scored 414 points during the regular season, but through three quarters of the loss to Seattle, they were shut out.
It will be key for the secondary to limit Niners tight end Vernon Davis and tight end-esque wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Fortunately for the Seahawks, they have just the personnel to do it. Thanks to Sherman's size and superb coverage skills, plus voracious safeties Chancellor and Thomas, Kaepernick could be mistake-prone again if he tries to force the issue.
Here are Kaepernick's combined stats against Seattle this season: 28 of 57 for 302 yards with four interceptions to just one touchdown.
Who will be the NFC champ?
Seattle's fearsome secondary also helps produce coverage sacks if the QB holds it too long. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett split a sack between them and provided relentless pressure up front on Drew Brees to aid in the Seahawks' victory. Bennett also pounced on a fumble on the first play of the second quarter, setting up the first TD of the game and putting his team in the driver's seat.
This secondary likes to talk a lot of trash, but it also backs it up with elite play. Kaepernick won't be able to solve it; he'll just try to survive it.
San Fran's Linebackers
The 49ers linebacking corps boasts three guys who could very well hold the key to an upset in the Emerald City. Incredibly, the Niners' elite linebackers have been even better in the postseason than in their Pro Bowl campaigns.
Through two playoff wins, NaVorro Bowman has racked up 21 tackles, 15 of them solo and three for a loss, plus a sack. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks has totaled 4.5 sacks in that span. Patrick Willis vexed Cam Newton and the Panthers with 11 tackles and an interception.
This unit will be tasked with holding down Marshawn Lynch, who once again personified "Beast Mode" in beating the New Orleans Saints, but it will be a matchup of strength versus strength thanks to the 49ers' beastly LBs.
In the Niners' Week 14 victory at home against Seattle, Marshawn Lynch was limited to 72 yards on 20 carries, though he did find the end zone. Containing him will help ramp up the pressure on Russell Wilson and the Seahawks' passing game. If Harvin can't go, that could leave Seattle struggling for points regardless of how loud the home crowd is.
Ultimately, there is a plethora of talent on both sides, and they will no doubt produce their third smash-mouth clash of the season. Seeing as they're so evenly matched, Seattle should prevail on the back of some raucous home-field advantage and the Legion of Boom.