Ever since the 2012 season reached its conclusion, it seemed like the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks were destined to meet in a clash to determined NFC supremacy. That will ultimately come to fruition when the Seahawks host the Niners on Jan. 19 with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
San Francisco represented the NFC in the big game last year, but it will have to go through a favored Seattle team on the road in order to repeat the feat. The 49ers and Seahawks split the regular-season meetings with each team winning at home, and there is no question that they will engage in one of the most physical affairs in recent memory.
So many little battles within each football game lead to the eventual result, and here are three in particular that are worth watching in the NFC Championship Game.
Anquan Boldin vs. Richard Sherman
When it comes to playoff football, it doesn't get any better than 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin going up against Seattle All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
Boldin is a fine receiver during the regular season, but he raises his play to a completely different level come playoff time. That was particularly evident last season when he caught 22 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns en route to the Baltimore Ravens winning the Super Bowl.
Sherman isn't quite as battle-tested as Boldin, since he has played in only a few playoff games, but he has quickly developed into the NFL's pre-eminent cover corner. Boldin had mixed results against Sherman during the regular season, as he was held to one catch for seven yards in Week 2, but he came through with six grabs for 93 yards later in the campaign.
This will be a test of wills, and that is something that could favor Boldin, based on the kind words from Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, courtesy of ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Jim Harbaugh on Anquan Boldin: "He's as tough as any player at any position in the National Football League, both mentally and physically."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 14, 2014
Both Boldin and Sherman have bragging rights based on their respective bodies of work, but only one of them can prevail in the NFC Championship Game. It can be argued that this is the biggest matchup in the entire game since it can make or break the Niners offense. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick needs to rely on Boldin and his postseason experience, but Sherman will do everything in his power to wipe out half of the field come Sunday.
Michael Crabtree vs. Byron Maxwell
Regardless of how the jousting between Boldin and Sherman plays out, an equally important matchup will take place on the other side of the field.
It's important to note that Niners wide receiver Michael Crabtree did not play in the first meeting between San Francisco and Seattle this season, and that obviously had a huge impact on the Seahawks' blowout win. Crabtree had modest numbers with four catches for 40 yards in the Niners' revenge victory, but his mere presence was huge.
His importance is well-documented since he is Kaepernick's favorite target and enjoyed a dominant postseason last year, but few people are talking about Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell. It's easy to forget about him due to the headlines that Sherman creates, but Maxwell has quietly developed into an elite corner as well.
According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, he is second only to Sherman in the NFL when it comes to quarterback rating allowed:
It can be argued that Maxwell is simply the beneficiary of a dominant defense around him, but the fact remains that quarterbacks are more willing to test Sherman. The stats say that he passes those tests more often than not, though.
Perhaps it is time to start recognizing Maxwell as one of the best. If he finds a way to shut down a big, athletic playmaker like Crabtree, then he won't be anonymous any longer.
Justin Smith vs. Russell Okung
What is the NFC Championship Game's most important matchup?
Statistics don't tell the entire story when it comes to 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith. He isn't a double-digit sack guy because Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks shine in that department, but he does all the dirty work necessary to free up his defensive teammates. He takes on blockers, stuffs running plays, rushes the quarterback and basically does everything possible to make life miserable for opposing offenses.
Because of that, he'll be key to the Niners' success against Seattle.
One player who can potentially take Smith out of the equation, though, is Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung. The No. 6 overall pick from the 2010 NFL draft has developed into a top-notch blindside protector for Russell Wilson, and he must be on top of his game in order to keep his quarterback off the turf in the NFC Championship Game.
According to the Seahawks' official Twitter account, Okung isn't lacking for confidence:
Left tackles have to deal with myriad linemen and linebackers, but few are like Smith. The Niners veteran is as tough, rugged and physical as they come, but he's also athletic enough to pull off some incredible feats. He has what it takes to push around some of the NFL's best offensive linemen, but Okung can't be intimidated.
Whichever side comes out on top in this battle could win the game in the process.
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