San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks: Previewing the NFC Championship Game
If you're looking for offensive fireworks, the 2014 NFC Championship isn't the game for you.
The AFC title tilt has those, with Peyton Manning and the historically prolific Denver offense welcoming in Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
What the NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks has is defense (as in two of the NFL's top five defenses).
It also has division rivals meeting for the third time this year, with each team winning once during the regular season.
Then there's the matter of two teams (and coaches) for whom familiarity truly has bred contempt. Simply put, the Seahawks and 49ers don't like one another even a little bit.
Now, the stakes are higher than ever before in this heated rivalry. Win, and it's on to New York. Lose, and it's an offseason of hearing how your most hated enemies bounced you from the postseason.
Here's the tale of the tape on this heavyweight title fight.
What You Need to Know
When: Sunday, January 19 2014
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington
Time: 6:30 p.m. EST
Point Spread (per Bovada): Seahawks by 3
Weather: Cloudy, temperatures in the mid-40s, chance of rain
Last Meeting: The 49ers defeated the Seahawks 19-17 in San Francisco on December 8, 2013
News and Notes: The Seahawks have been nearly unbeatable at home since Russell Wilson took over at quarterback, winning 15 of 16 games in Seattle over the past two seasons.
The 49ers and Seahawks have met 30 times, dating back to 1976. Somewhat fittingly, each team has won 15 games.
In recent years, this matchup has belonged to the home team. Since 2009, the road team has won only once in 10 games, said win coming when the 49ers beat the Seahawks 19-17 in Seattle on Christmas Eve 2011.
There isn't a more inhospitable place in the NFL for visitors to play than CenturyLink Field. In the 2013 season alone, Seahawks fans broke the Guinness World Record for loudest outdoor sports stadium three times.
When the 49ers Have the Ball
The San Francisco 49ers may have had some struggles on offense earlier in the season, but of late, it's been all systems go.
The Niners have now won eight straight, scoring over 20 points in seven of those games. The lone exception was a 19-17 win over the Seahawks in Week 14. The engine behind that win, as it often is for the 49ers, was running back Frank Gore, who powered his way to 110 yards on 17 carries.
However, it's been the return of wideout Michael Crabtree that has really taken the lid off the San Francisco offense.
Not only has Crabtree added a vertical element that was sorely lacking in the passing game, but the attention he garners in coverage has also spurred on a late-season surge from wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
The 33-year-old Boldin, who teammate Donte Whitner called "one of the toughest guys in the National Football League," according to Jim Corbett of USA Today, led the 49ers with 1,179 receiving yards in 2013.
That performance has carried over into the playoffs. In wins over the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers, Boldin has logged 11 catches for 174 yards.
That toughness is going to be needed against the Seahawks and their star-studded "Legion of Boom" defense.
The Seahawks rank at or near the top of the NFL in a number of statistical categories: first against the pass (172.0 yards per game), first in scoring defense (14.4 points per game) and first in takeaways (39).
That defense has also given San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick fits at CenturyLink field. In two career starts against the Seahawks in Seattle, Kaepernick has completed only half his passes, averaging less than 200 passing yards per game with one touchdown pass and four interceptions.
Kaepernick's passer rating in those games, both blowout losses? A woeful 45.1.
When the Seahawks Have the Ball
The 49ers and Seahawks really are eerily similar teams, especially on offense.
Both teams have young, mobile quarterbacks capable of running the zone-read with brutal efficiency, directing power-running attacks that bludgeon opponents into submission.
However, where the San Francisco offense appears to be peaking at the perfect time, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has scuffled of late.
Wilson had a fantastic second season overall, topping 3,300 passing yards and posting a passer rating of over 100 and touchdown/interception ratio of nearly 3-to-1.
However, since Seattle lost to San Francisco back in Week 14, Wilson has topped 200 passing yards only once, with four touchdown passes and three interceptions.
Head coach Pete Carroll isn't overly concerned. Speaking to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times, Carroll said, “We could always do better,’’ but noted that “I think he [Wilson] is doing great, doing what we need to do to win games.’’
It won't be any easier on Sunday. The 49ers and Seahawks may employ different schemes, but their defenses are equally formidable.
Spearheaded by the NFL's best quartet of linebackers, the 49ers ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense, fourth against the run and third in points allowed.
For the San Fran defense, the key would appear simple: stop tailback Marshawn Lynch.
It's been anything but for the 49ers in Seattle of late, though. In the past two meetings at CenturyLink Field, Lynch has rumbled for 209 yards with three touchdowns on 54 carries.
Beast mode, indeed.
49ers' X-Factor: Eric Reid, FS
It's hard to pinpoint a weakness with a San Francisco defense that's as good as it gets in the NFL.
With that said, if one exists it's on the back end, which could be an issue against a Seattle team that likes to dial up the big play.
In each of the past two games between these teams played in Seattle, Doug Baldwin has gotten behind the 49ers defense for a catch of at least 40 yards.
Many times these big plays for the Seahawks are borne of broken ones. Russell Wilson's ability to extend plays with his legs enables receivers to break off routes. All it takes is one defensive back losing sight of his responsibilities for a second and you're cooked.
As the "center fielder" for the 49ers, it will fall to rookie free safety Eric Reid to prevent these sort of defensive lapses Sunday.
The former LSU star has played admirably as Dashon Goldson's replacement in the Bay Area this year, topping 75 tackles and logging four interceptions while ranking among the top 20 safeties in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, the difference between Reid allowing a long pass and potentially picking one off could easily decide what shapes up as a closely contested affair.
Seahawks' X-Factor: Percy Harvin, WR
It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out the biggest X-factor for the Seahawks.
Percy Harvin was going to be the final piece for the Seahawks this year. Seattle acquired the 25-year-old from the Minnesota Vikings before the season in the hopes he would add a new dimension to the offense.
Instead, Harvin missed nearly the entire regular season with a hip injury. The fifth-year pro was reportedly all systems go headed into last week's postseason matchup with the Saints, only to suffer a concussion in the first half.
That concussion clouds Harvin's availability for Sunday, with Pete Carroll telling Terry Blount of ESPN, "We'll just see how he does. We won't know until Wednesday or Thursday until after all the tests are run."
Even though Harvin has barely played this year, he could still have a significant impact on this game if he's able to go.
Not only is Harvin one of the NFL's most dangerous players with a football in his hand, but if he's on the field (rusty or not) he's also going to draw extra attention from the defense, especially if he's active in the game plan early on.
That means more man coverage for Golden Tate and Baldwin and an increased chance that Wilson breaks out of his funk.
49ers' Biggest Matchup Advantage: Aldon Smith vs. Russell Okung
It's been a rocky season for San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith.
After amassing 33.5 sacks over his first two seasons, Smith dropped all the way to 8.5 in 2013. That was mostly due to the five games he missed while undergoing inpatient treatment for substance abuse.
Smith has been active in the playoffs, however, racking up seven tackles and 1.5 sacks in two games.
The 24-year-old has also been a monster against Seattle over his career, piling up 17 tackles and three sacks in three career starts in The Emerald City.
The 49ers will no doubt move Smith around in an effort to make Russell Wilson miserable, but Smith will likely spend most of the game battling left tackle Russell Okung.
It's a matchup that favors Smith. Okung has missed eight games this year due to injury. Even when on the field the 25-year-old has struggled in pass protection, ranking well outside the top 50 at his position in that regard, according to Pro Football Focus.
Part of Wilson's struggles of late trace to sketchy pass protection, and the 49ers' best odds at keeping him down lies in getting after Wilson early and often.
Seahawks' Biggest Matchup Advantage: Marshawn Lynch vs. Everyone in His Way
It may seem counterintuitive to say that any running back has an edge against the 49ers.
However, there are two truths where Marshawn Lynch is concerned.
First, he chews through yardage at home like a bag of Skittles. In nine home games in 2013 (counting the playoffs), Lynch is averaging 87 yards and a touchdown per game. Add in his receiving yardage and Lynch has averaged over 100 total yards per game at home this season.
The second is that Lynch loves playing the 49ers at home.
In two of the past three matchups with the Niners in Seattle, Lynch has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground. In the other he rushed for 98 yards. He scored at least one touchdown in all three games.
The Seahawks rode Lynch's 140 yards and two scores to a win over the Saints last week, and it's a safe wager they'll pound away with him on the ground again Sunday evening.
Prediction: Seahawks 20, 49ers 17 (OT)
The things that make this game compelling also make it incredibly hard to forecast.
With two similarly built teams so familiar with another and so strong on defense, there just isn't that one glaring edge that can be easily pointed to as the pivot point for this game.
On one hand, momentum seems to clearly favor the 49ers. Since these teams last met, the 49ers have played the most complete football in the NFL. There isn't a hotter team right now, and it's not close.
So why the Seahawks? In one word, location.
CenturyLink Field is going to be an absolute asylum Sunday. The Seahawks are so determined to keep 49ers fans out of the building that you can't buy tickets for the game with a California ID, per a report by Cindy Boren of The Washington Post.
It's going to be a close game that comes down to all the old cliches:
- running the ball
- playing strong defense
- avoiding mistakes with the ball
As well as Colin Kaepernick has played of late, it's that last part that has been his undoing in Seattle in the past, and it's going to be the 49ers' undoing on Sunday.
Look for the crowd to be a factor early, with a San Francisco turnover affording the Seahawks a short field and a lead right off the bat.
From there, the defenses will take over, with yardage and points becoming harder and harder to come by.
However, the 49ers aren't about to just roll over, and a second-half comeback from Kaepernick will set the stage for the first overtime conference championship game since 2008.
That comeback will fall short, as a long Lynch run against a tired San Francisco defense will set Steven Hauschka up for the field goal that sends the Seahawks on to Super Bowl XLVIII.