They'll face the new-and-improved Kaepernick.
You see, the old Kaepernick was overwhelmed by the Seattle atmosphere. He made a few mistakes early and never recovered in San Francisco's 29-3 loss in Week 2.
The new Kap is hardly perfect, but his skin has thickened. He's battle-tested and confident, and he'll rip the heart out of a defense when given the opportunity. Just ask the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers.
In the NFC Divisional Round, Kaepernick and the 49ers were off to a slow start. Down 10-6 late in the first half, San Francisco was on the brink of losing its grip on the game.
He led a 12-play, 80-yard drive, capped by a one-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with five seconds left before halftime. It put the 49ers up by three, but it might as well have been a knockout blow.
Playing with a noticeable boost in confidence, Kaepernick led San Francisco on an eight-play, 77-yard touchdown drive on its first possession of the third quarter. On its ensuing possession, the third-year signal-caller spearheaded a 7:58 drive that ended with a field goal. And that was all she wrote for the Panthers.
|Points Per Possession||Yards/Play||YPG||Kap's QBR|
Make no mistake, 23 points in nine possessions against Carolina is an elite offensive performance. The Panthers had allowed more than 20 points just once in their last 12 games. Their regular-season average in points allowed per possession was 1.33. Kap and Co. exploited them for 2.56 points per possession.
However, his most impressive playoff quarter happened the week prior.
After three straight second-half drives that ended with a punt, Kaepernick upped his level of play when it mattered most against Green Bay. He orchestrated two fourth-quarter scoring drives, the second of which resulted in a game-ending field goal to give the 49ers a 23-20 win at Lambeau Field.
He shook off mounting pressure and erratic play to guide the 49ers in freezing temperatures.
But now comes the hard part.
The Seahawks have the NFL's best defense backed by the league's loudest fans. Richard Sherman can contain any 49ers wide receiver, and Seattle has held Vernon Davis—banged up or otherwise—to 41 yards in the two regular-season games this year.
Kaepernick has been, in a word, abysmal in his two career starts at CenturyLink Field. One touchdown, four interceptions, two blowout losses and a two slices of humble pie highlight his history playing against the Legion of Boom in Seattle.
"Those games really don't matter at this point," Kaepernick said, in response to a question about his struggles in The Emerald City (via Seahawks.com). "We'll try to win this game to get where we want to be."
So, why will things be different this time?
Some Niners fans would say the team's health will be the difference. Others might point to Russell Wilson's recent struggles. But this game, more than anything else, comes down to whether Kaepernick can produce.
The 49ers are 14-0 this year when Kaepernick exceeds six passing yards per attempt. They are 0-4 when he doesn't.
And right now, Kaepernick is on a roll that even the best defense in the league will have trouble stopping.
Just look at this ESPN screenshot captured by Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone:
As John McTigue of ESPN.com pointed out, Kaepernick's play is dramatically better when Davis, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are on the field at once. He's learned to spread the wealth among the three over the last two months.
In Week 14 against Seattle, Sherman and Co. held Crabtree to just 40 receiving yards. So Kap focused on Boldin, who had 93 receiving yards. The 49ers went on to edge the Seahawks 19-17.
Against Green Bay in the Wild Card Round, the Packers put more emphasis on stopping Boldin, who had 13 catches for 208 yards in Week 1 against them. Naturally, Crabtree ended up with 125 receiving yards, and Davis had a go-ahead 28-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
Against Carolina, Crabtree hurt his wrist and drew more coverage attention. So Kaepernick went back to targeting Boldin. He had eight catches for 136 yards.
See a trend? Even two of the best defenses in the NFL couldn't take everything away.
Which quarterback will have a better game?
A big reason for his improved play is his improved decisiveness. In San Francisco's two wins against Carolina and Seattle, Kaepernick was sacked a combined three times. In its two losses against them, he was sacked nine times.
Of course, all of his recent good fortune isn't going to help him execute on Sunday. He could let the crowd get to him. He could fail to execute.
It's impossible to know, which is what makes sports so great.
But I wouldn't bet against him. He looks as ready as he ever has for the Seattle challenge.