It was always hard to see the season boiling down to anything else—Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, and Pro Football Focus all had San Francisco and Seattle 1-2 in the NFC in their preseason power rankings, and both teams were similarly high in the ESPN and Football Outsiders preseason editions. Unlike the recent trend in the postseason, there really isn’t a "surprise" team left at this point in the playoffs—both the 49ers and Seahawks, as well as their counterparts in the AFC, have earned this spot by being one of the top teams in the NFL this season, rather than simply getting hot at the right time.
Early betting lines have the Seahawks favored by roughly a field goal, which is a fairly standard advantage for the team with home-field advantage. That feels roughly correct—both teams have played well this season, and both own victories over the other when in their home stadiums. This is only the fourth time the 49ers have rolled into a game as the underdogs, but the label seems roughly accurate for this game.
If the 49ers hope to return to the Super Bowl, they’re going to have to do what they couldn’t do in Week 2—beat Seattle on its own turf. It’s a tall task, though as Arizona proved this season, not impossible. How can the 49ers pull the upset and become the first team to reach back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-04 New England Patriots?
Let’s look at some of the key factors.
Counteracting Home Field Advantage
You can’t compare the two earlier 49er-Seahawk showdowns without pointing to the effect of home-field advantage.
Since 2002, the Seahawks have had the best advantage in football playing at home, getting an extra 5.2 points per game just from staying in the Emerald City. They are 72-31 in the stadium and have lost by more than one score only 15 times.
The noise is obviously a factor, as the Seattle fans have set the world record for crowd noise and have forced opposing teams to false start more than any other home crowd in football, but it’s not just the noise. You also have the geographic isolation factor, as there are no short road trips up to Seattle—the closest team is San Francisco, and that’s still 800 miles away.
Add in the rainy, cold weather late in the season and you get a very foreboding place for a road team to play.
How do you counteract this advantage? The largest key is not to get into too deep a hole early and to try to take the crowd out of it. That’s a much easier thing to say than to do—the crowd will be pumped for the NFC Championship Game, and the 49ers have been very bad at just getting up to the line of scrimmage and getting a play off in time, even without the kind of deafening noise to be found at CenturyLink Field. The crowd noise there caused a league-leading 12 delay-of-game penalties and anecdotally seem to cause teams to burn two or three timeouts a game just trying to line up properly.
If that happens in Seattle, the 49ers have no chance—if they get rattled and can’t simply get plays off, Seattle is going to roll in this game.
If, however, they can slow down the tempo early, avoid turnovers and put together the sort of long, time-consuming drives they’ve been capable of this season, they can bring that crowd interference down to manageable levels.
In the second matchup between the two teams this year, the 49ers had three drives of ten plays or more, accounting for nearly a quarter of the entire game and resulting in the game-winning score.
Although all three drives ended up in field goals, as opposed to touchdowns, these are the sorts of drives the 49ers need in this game. Yes, a game-breaking kickoff return or long bomb for a touchdown would be nice and silent the crowd momentarily, but a) the 49ers aren’t particularly designed for that, and b) the cumulative effects of these long, clock-killing drives can more thoroughly subdue if not demoralize the crowd—not to mention the fact that it tires out the defense.
The 49ers have two of the top-four longest drives in the league this year—a 17-play, 10:27 drive against Tampa Bay, and an 18-play, 9:32 drive against Arizona. If they import that long-drive success into Seattle, the 49ers can go a long way to lessening the effects of Seattle’s crowd advantage.
San Francisco’s Offense Improving
One of the big stories this preseason was the arms race in Seattle and San Francisco, as the additions of Percy Harvin and Anquan Boldin bolstered the teams' respective receiving corps. Of course, Harvin missed nearly the entire season with a hip injury, and the 49ers’ loss of Michael Crabtree to his Achilles injury counteracted the addition of Boldin.
The 49ers suffered more from the loss of their receiver, as the offense sputtered for the first half of the season, only to begin reviving when Crabtree returned in early December. Once he did come back, the 49er offense was able to operate with its full complement of weapons.
In the preview for last week’s game against Carolina, I posted the stats for Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ passing game, split into pre-Week 10 and post-Week 10 segments. Here are the updated stats, taking the Carolina game into account, now with nine games in each split:
Overall, the 49ers’ offense has gone for more than 300 yards in each and every game of their active eight game winning streak, including the home game against Seattle. They gained 318 yards in that matchup, compared to 207 in the first go-round.
Why the difference? Part of it is the return of Crabtree, who had four receptions for 40 yards in the game and simply gave Kaepernick another valid target in the passing game. A fully healthy Vernon Davis helped, as well—he left with a hamstring injury in the first Seattle game, further robbing Kaepernick of targets to throw to.
It wasn’t just the passing game that was able to find success, as the running game also picked up 63 more yards in the second matchup than in the first. That stat is a bit skewed, though, as 51 of those yards came on a Frank Gore rumble late in the fourth quarter to move the 49ers into range to kick the game-winning field goal. For the majority of the afternoon, the running game largely was as effective as it was in the first matchup, averaging just under 5.0 yards per carry.
The 49ers ground attack has actually slipped a little in the second half of the season, dropping from 147.7 yards per game to 129.4—that’s more than made up for, however, by the increase in the passing offense, which has risen from an average of 173.9 yards to 201.9.
Against the Seahawks in that second matchup, Davis worked the seam routes to perfection, Boldin fought contested balls tooth and claw with Seattle star cornerback Richard Sherman and came away victorious, and Crabtree showed his route-running was not affected by the layoff.
The passing game gave enough room for Frank Gore to plow for holes through the line; he racked up 33 carries in the second game as opposed to only 20 in the Week 2 matchup in Seattle, which helped San Francisco control the clock and the flow of the game.
The health of the offense was a huge contributing factor to that victory.
Seattle’s Offense Declining
It looked like this third matchup would feature the full receiving corps for both teams, as Percy Harvin made a quasi-miraculous return against New Orleans a week after nearly landing on the injured reserve list. During the game, however, Harvin was knocked around by the Saints secondary, leaving for concussion tests at two different points in the game, as well as being seen in a shoulder harness after the game.
As for the championship game, we won’t know Harvin’s full status until Wednesday or Thursday, due to the time the concussion protocols take to complete. It’s fair to call him questionable for Sunday, with somewhere around a 50-50 chance to suit up.
For most of the season, of course, Seattle didn’t need Harvin. The offense was rolling—they ran over San Francisco to the tune of 172 yards on the ground in the Week 2 game, and have cracked the 400-yard mark offensively six times this year, something the 49ers haven’t managed to do since Week 1.
However, just as the 49ers’ offense has been heating up, the Seahawks’ offense seems to be cooling down. Over the same eight-week period we discussed earlier, in which the 49ers have been over 300 yards each and every week, the Seahawks have struggled, registering less than 300 yards four times, with the nadir being the Week 16 home loss to Arizona, in which Russell Wilson and ended up with 89 yards through the air.
Some of these recent struggles can be explained away by things outside of on-field execution—the subpar offensive performance last week, for instance, was in large part the result of extraordinarily windy and rainy conditions, far surpassing what even Seattle normally faces.
Still, four games out of eight points to a trend.
It’s not Marshawn Lynch, either—the worst rushing performance in that time span was the 86 yards against San Francisco, which is one of the two stingiest run defenses they faced in that stretch of games.
Rather, it’s the passing game: over the last five games, Russell Wilson has completed 56.7 percent of his passes for 788 yards—only 6.6 yards per attempt. He’s also thrown only four touchdowns and has been intercepted three times.
Make no mistake, Wilson’s had a fantastic season overall, but the passing game has struggled to close out the season.
While the 49ers game is included in that sample, it didn’t feel like Wilson had a horrible game against them the second time out, as the Seahawks actually increased their passing yards from 118 to 178 between the two games. Part of that is a lack of quarterback pressures—in Week 2, the 49ers pressured Wilson on 21 dropbacks but charted only seven such pressures in the Week 14 rematch.
A lot of that difference can be attributed to Aldon Smith getting to go against Paul McQuistan and J.R. Sweezy in the first matchup and having to deal with Russell Okung in the second go-round. A lack of pressure from Smith and 49ers defensive front in the second matchup was partially compensated for by the secondary clamping down tighter. Both Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright provided outstanding pass coverage.
The weak link in that second matchup was Carlos Rogers, who allowed six receptions on eight targets for 71 yards, much of it to Golden Tate. Rogers’ status is still unknown for the championship game, but Brock and Tarell Brown have been the 49ers' cornerbacks of choice recently anyway—the matchup between them and Tate will go a long way towards determining what the offense can do.
Marshawn Lynch is a beast no matter what—against the Saints, he forced 13 missed tackles and has 99 on the season so far, according to ProFootballFocus’ charting stats, meaning he is a pain to get down. However, if the 49ers can shut down Seattle’s passing offense, forcing them to become one dimensional, their odds of winning improve dramatically.
Getting Around the Defense
There is no getting around this fact—the Seahawks don’t have a weakness on defense.
By nearly every metric, Seattle has been the best defense this season, including Football Outsiders’ overall DVOA stat, where they’ve opened up a ten-point lead over their closest competitor. The Seahawks have multiple Defensive Player of the Year candidates, the best pass rush and pass coverage in football and a solid run defense.
They play a brand of physical, rough defense and never let opposing offenses get comfortable. If the 49ers are going to have their ninth straight 300-plus yard game, they’re going to have to find ways to crack their toughest task so far.
Kaepernick was pressured 21 times in the first matchup, leading to three interceptions and three sacks—there simply wasn’t time for him to read Seattle's coverages. These pressures weren’t coming from the blitz, either—Seattle blitzed only five times, mostly just clamping down on the depleted receiving corps and preventing Kaepernick from finding anywhere to go with the ball.
The second matchup went better, as the 49er offensive line held up a little better, allowing 10 pressures. Joe Staley, in particular, had a much better day the second time around.
The pressures simply have to be down, especially when not blitzed. That’s going to be key in this matchup. If Mike Iupati has another day where he gives up six hurries, as he did in the first matchup, the 49ers aren’t going to be able to move the ball well enough to win this game.
Then there's the very tall task of playing a road playoff game in the loudest stadium in the NFL. The inability to hear the snap count removes the offensive line’s normal advantage—they know when the snap count is, meaning in normal situations, they don’t have to watch the ball, while the defense does. With the deafening noise, however, the offensive line has to pay attention to the ball more than their blocking assignment at the snap, which can lead to disaster.
So, how to attack the top defense in football?
Remember, what was mentioned in the 49ers’ offensive section—San Francisco's averaged nearly five yards a rush against Seattle in the two matchups this year. It’s not just the 49ers, either: The Saints used a power rushing attack last week, getting 108 yards on 24 carries behind Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.
A heavy dose of running the ball isn't New Orleans normal offensive strategy, but a combination of the weather and Seattle's suburb pass rush led the Saints to try a power-running strategy, and they had notable success. Arizona, too, found success on the ground in their Week 16 upset, with Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall ending up with a combined 139 yards on the ground. You see the same pattern in Seattle’s overtime wins against Tampa Bay and the Houston Texas, as well as in its near loss to St. Louis in Week 8, all of which saw Seattle’s opponent go for over 150 yards rushing.
It is possible to get traction on the ground against the Seahawks' front seven.
A heavy dose of Frank Gore, with a side of Kendall Hunter, seems to be in the cards for this matchup. The running game helps control the clock, quiet down the crowd and reduce the impact of Seattle's devastating secondary.
It felt like the 49ers got away from their smashmouth approach too early in the first matchup, recording only three rushing attempts after halftime. It was still 5-0 at that point, far too early to give up on the ground game. This isn’t a "run to win" sort of argument; the reason winning teams have more rushing yards than losing teams, in general, is because they run to bleed the clock when they're already winning.
This is more of a balance argument. By essentially giving up on the running game in the second half of the Week 2 matchup, the 49ers not took the ball out of the hands of one of their top playmakers, but they became one dimensional and allowed the Seattle defense to double down its efforts to stop the passing attack without worrying about the ground game.
Becoming one dimensional removed the threat of the play-action pass, and it played right into the strengths of a defense which doesn’t need extra help to be a dominant force. The worst-case scenario for the 49ers is becoming predictable; they need to keep that running game going strong to have a chance in this one.
So, breaking it all down, what’s San Francisco’s strategy in this one? Run the ball, hang on to the football, and control the clock. Make sure the drives end in some sort of points, forcing Seattle’s recently sputtering offense to keep scoring, rather than just waiting to take advantage of a three-and-out or a turnover. Shorten the game, take the crowd out of it, and win the field position battle.
That’s a hard script to follow. When Seattle’s fully in gear, they are better than San Francisco on both sides of the ball. The thing is, they haven’t been fully in gear recently, while the 49ers are riding the biggest winning streak among the four remaining playoff teams.
Will it be enough to overcome Seattle? That’s hard to say—the 49ers will likely need a couple breaks, as well as lights-out performances from both the offense and defense to come out on top of this one.
However, as long as they can avoid being swept up and washed away early and prevent the emotions of the big game and the crowd noise to turn momentum in Seattle's favor, the 49ers have every chance to come out on top in this game.
It should be exciting to watch.