The San Francisco 49ers will be at CenturyLink Field to battle the Seattle Seahawks in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. This is a playoff matchup many football enthusiasts have been itching for since preseason, and it will be the third contest of the 2013-14 NFL season between the two NFC West powerhouses.
A primary narrative throughout the week leading up to the game will be Seattle's home-field advantage. The Seahawks have gone 16-1 at home the past two years (including playoffs), their only loss coming to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16 this season.
The Cardinals were only too happy to point this out recently when the NFL Network asked if Seattle was beatable at home:
San Francisco has been throttled the past two trips to "The Link," however, losing by a combined score of 71-16. The 49ers lost the turnover battle 7-2 in those two games, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggled badly against Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary.
But the 49ers are a different team now than they were in Week 2 (the last time the team went to Seattle). Winners of eight straight games—the most of any team left in the postseason—San Francisco imposed its will on the Carolina Panthers during the second half in the divisional round, and this team is healthy at the right time for a second straight Super Bowl run.
Here's a look at a few key players and injuries that will have an impact on the outcome, along with additional analysis and a final prediction for the 2014 NFC Championship Game.
Seattle: Marshawn Lynch, RB
Lynch scored three total touchdowns the last time the 49ers traveled to Seattle, carrying the Seahawks to an impressive 29-3 win. He was also the catalyst for the team's victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC divisional round, rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns—the only touchdowns of the game for the Seahawks.
The running back made 13 Saints defenders miss in his last game, as pointed out by Pro Football Focus, which juxtaposed his performance against the rest of the running backs in the divisional round:
If the 49ers can't keep Lynch from breaking out with another huge game, then the Seahawks will likely win the contest handily.
On the other hand, if the 49ers can bottle up "Beast Mode," then it will give San Francisco's pass-rushers a chance of pressuring Russell Wilson into some mistakes in the passing game.
San Francisco: Colin Kaepernick, QB
Kaepernick's last trip to Seattle was a huge wake-up call for the talented third-year quarterback. Remember, he had just shredded the Green Bay Packers to the tune of 434 total yards and three touchdowns in his previous game (Week 1).
But Seattle's defense is a far cry better than Dom Capers' porous unit. During Week 2, Kaepernick completed just 46.4 percent of his passes (13-of-28), passing for 127 yards while throwing zero touchdowns and three interceptions. He also lost a fumble, totaling four turnovers in the game.
When asked about the upcoming matchup, Kaepernick dismissed his past failures.
"That's in the past," said Kaepernick via Al Saracevic of SFGate.com. "This is a different situation. We have to go out there and win it."
The dual-threat quarterback has been on a tear since the start of the team's eight-game winning streak, however, scoring 14 total touchdowns (12 passing, two rushing) while turning the ball over just twice.
If Kaepernick can continue playing turnover-free football, then the 49ers will have a tremendous opportunity to knock off their NFC West rivals on the way to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Seattle: Bobby Wagner, LB
Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor receive plenty of media attention for their stellar play in Seattle's vaunted secondary, but linebacker Bobby Wagner is the engine that makes this defense tick.
Wagner struggled with his health in the middle of the season, however, turning an ankle in Week 5.
He missed a couple of games before coming back, but it was clear he wasn't fully healthy. In his first two games back, against St. Louis and Tampa Bay, Seattle gave up 405 rushing yards and nearly lost both games.
Once Wagner got healthy, though, Seattle's run defense showed up in a major way. In the last five games of the regular season, the Seahawks allowed just 76.8 rushing yards a game, with Wagner racking up 51 tackles during that stretch.
San Francisco: Donte Whitner, S
Safety Donte Whitner has become a complete player for the 49ers this season, but he will have his hands full on Jan. 19 against Seattle.
Not only will he need to play disciplined on the back end to avoid getting burned by the ever-elusive and always exciting Russell Wilson, but he'll need to be a sure tackler in the run game against Lynch.
The 49ers are strong up front, with one of the best front-sevens in all of football. The battle in the trenches will be a huge key in the game, but in the end, San Francisco's secondary will need to step up and keep Seattle's receivers from making big-chunk plays downfield to win the game.
Whitner must have a huge game in this capacity.
Both teams enter the NFC Championship Game with relatively healthy rosters, which is a big reason why they made it this far to begin with. That said, there are a few injuries worth mentioning.
Percy Harvin made his return to the lineup for Seattle last weekend, but he was quickly banged up on a huge hit and was subsequently sent to the locker room. After making his way back onto the field, Harvin was hit hard once again and was forced from the divisional-round game for good with a concussion, as announced by the Seahawks on Twitter:
Michael Crabtree was hurt early against Carolina, but he remained in the game with a shoulder injury. Afterward, the receiver told reporters, “I’m not hurt. I’m just playing ball," via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
49ers fullback Will Tukuafu was also injured in that game. He is being treated for an MCL sprain, per Maiocco.
Can the 49ers Win the Turnover Battle?
As mentioned in the introduction, Seattle has dominated the turnover battle the past two times these two teams have met at CenturyLink Field. In particular, San Francisco's five turnovers in Week 2 this season crippled its chances of having any shot at winning the game.
The 49ers haven't been turning the ball over very often of late, though, and they have been forcing more on defense during the team's eight-game winning streak. During this stretch, Jim Harbaugh's squad has won the turnover battle 11-4.
The noise at CenturyLink Field wreaks havoc on teams' ability to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage on offense. The 49ers will need to come into the game with a winning game plan, and then the players will need to execute that plan to perfection in order to come out with a victory.
Kaepernick must take care of the ball, and the team's defense must come through with a signature performance.
“Our defense, we have to go out there and be the best defense on the field,” Whitner said, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. “We have to get turnovers and possibly have to score on defense when we get up there. We understand that to win that football game.”
Seattle's home-field advantage won't be enough to give the Seahawks the win.
Seattle wasn't particularly sharp down the home stretch, losing to the 49ers in Week 14 at Candlestick Park and then again two weeks later in Week 16 to the Cardinals at home.
In particular, Seattle's passing game has been an issue of concern during this stretch, as Russell Wilson passed for just 788 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. SI.com's Don Banks put it this way:
Taking nothing away from Seattle's dominating defensive performance for most of the game, but that's not looking like a Super Bowl-ready offense in Seattle about now. ... Seattle had produced just 44 yards of offense in the second half until fewer than four minutes remained, and that lack of execution allowed the Saints to come dangerously close to stealing the game.
But I don't see the Seahawks getting past San Francisco if they don't threaten more than they did on Saturday. Don't think Russell Wilson completing just nine passes for a career-worst 103 yards, like he did against New Orleans, will cut it next Sunday.
San Francisco's defense is on fire right now, as was clearly evidenced by the shutout effort in the second half against Carolina—not to mention the two pivotal goal-line stands in the first half.
On the other side, the 49ers have become much more balanced on offense since Crabtree's return to the lineup in early Dec.
It's looking like the third time's a charm for the 49ers in Seattle.
49ers win, 23-21
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