For the third time this season, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will prepare to beat on each other for 60 minutes. These two bitter NFC West rivals will face off in Seattle on Sunday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m. ET with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
The two teams split their regular-season meetings. The 49ers won most recently in Week 14, but the Seahawks have destroyed the 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick in Seattle the past two seasons.
Given this, it is no surprise that Bovada has Seattle as just a three-point favorite despite the fact that Seattle has only lost once at home over the last two seasons.
I say all of this to point out that this game can go either way. These are two evenly matched teams that are all too familiar with each other.
This game is going to come down to which team executes best on the following keys.
Get off to a Fast Start
Both of these teams like to run the ball and play defense. That is a far easier task when in the lead, and it gets less conducive to run the bigger a deficit grows.
For just that reason, it behooves both teams to get off to a fast start, but the reasons go beyond that for this matchup.
The Seahawks have used this as a key to success all season. They didn't allow a single first-quarter touchdown all season. This only helps increase the ferocity of the 12th man.
Should the Seahawks get an early lead, it will also help quarterback Russell Wilson past his recent struggles.
In terms of QBR, Wilson has had five of his eight worst outings of the season in his last five starts.
Of course, it's not like Kaepernick wants to be in a position where he has to throw the ball. In his two starts in Seattle, he's combined to go 32-of-64 passing with 371 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.
If one team can get out to an early lead, it will allow that team to dictate the flow of the game and make a comeback very difficult.
Win the Ground Battle
Although getting off to a fast start will lend the opportunity for a team to control the game, the best path to that comes with consistent success on the ground.
It is no coincidence that in the first meeting of the season the Seahawks out-rushed the 49ers 172-100 and won the game. Then, in the second meeting, the 49ers won after out-rushing the Seahawks, 163-86.
Both ground games looked strong on both sides of the ball in the divisional round.
The 49ers out-rushed the Panthers 126-93. Although that is a modest total, like the Seahawks and 49ers, the Panthers built most of their success on their strength in the ground game on offense and defense.
The Seahawks ran wild on the Saints for 174 rushing yards, as the Saints ran for 108.
The 49ers will pose a far stiffer test for Seattle, however, when they hand off to Marshawn Lynch. Although, Beast Mode was in full effect in the divisional round, as Lynch was breaking tackles left and right.
The Impact of Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree
Much has been made of Kaepernick's struggles in Seattle, but he has not had any help from his receivers. In 2012, the Seahawks focused on shutting down Michael Crabtree and held him to four catches for 65 yards on nine targets.
This season, after a huge debut with the 49ers in the opener, Anquan Boldin was held to one catch for seven yards on four targets.
The game in San Francisco this season was Kaepernick's only start against Seattle where he had the services of both receivers, and it made a difference. Crabtree and Boldin combined to grab 10 passes for 133 yards on 16 targets.
These guys don't need to put up huge numbers, but they need to make big catches and prove to be an efficient connection with Kaepernick.
This will help the 49ers keep drives alive and open up things for the run.