The San Francisco 49ers are going to exorcise some Northwest demons by going into Seattle and beating the Seahawks in the NFC Championship on Sunday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m. ET.
The 49ers have been beaten by a combined score of 71-16 in their two games in Seattle over the last two seasons, but improved health and performances are enough to lead this team to victory despite the best efforts of the Seahawks and the boisterous 12th man:
In media's final question to Colin Kaepernick, he was asked of Seattle's 12th Man: "We only have 11 on the field, just like them."— Cam Inman (@CamInman) January 15, 2014
My confidence in the 49ers comes from the performances of both team's offenses. The 49ers have a more diverse attack now than in either of their previous two trips to Seattle, and the Seahawks' offense is struggling.
Let's start with the 49ers.
In his two starts in Seattle, quarterback Colin Kaepernick combined to go 32-of-64 passing with 371 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. The Seahawks found success against him by getting him out of his comfort zone.
For starters, the Seahawks opened up big early leads, and facing a deficit is not where the 49ers want to be. San Francisco wants to win games by running the ball and playing great defense. That is not exactly feasible when falling behind early.
Those leads were easy for the Seahawks to open up because they have swallowed the 49ers offense. Playing effective press coverage, Kaepernick is forced to show patience and the ability to go through his reads. The youngster still struggles in these areas, and his receivers haven't been getting open to help him out.
Things will be different this time around. This will be Kaepernick's first start in Seattle when he's had the services of both wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin.
Last week, the 49ers took the lead on the Carolina Panthers right before halftime on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that sparked the offense. In that drive, Kaepernick opened up the drive by going to either Boldin or Crabtree on five of the first eight plays. The other three went to running back Frank Gore.
The Seahawks will not be able to roll coverage over to either receiver given the 49ers increased weapons.
When the 49ers beat the Seahawks in San Francisco in Week 14, both Boldin and Crabtree were on the field, and it made a big difference. It isn't all that evident in Kaepernick's stat line. He finished 15-of-29 for 175 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The difference is really seen in the rushing stats. San Francisco rushed for 163 yards at an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Now, a lot of that came about on one 51-yard run by Frank Gore, but that is the kind of result that will happen when defenses are more spread out to slow down options in the passing game.
With both Crabtree and Boldin on the field, the 49ers have more offensive balance. That is vital against the tough defense of the Seahawks.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks are losing any balance they had.
By now, it is no secret that quarterback Russell Wilson is slumping. Over his last five starts, he's posted five of his worst eight starts this season in terms of QBR. On top of that, he struggled against San Francisco in Seattle in Week 2 even though the Seahawks cruised to victory:
Wilson hasn't enjoyed good pass protection this year, but he's made up for that with his scrambling and playmaking ability. With defenses mixing up their looks and blitzes and spying Wilson, he's had a harder time exploiting defenses by breaking contain and completing easy passes.
The offensive struggles shouldn't fall all on Wilson. He isn't getting a ton of help from an average receiving corps.
Percy Harvin has the ability to help with all of this, but there is no reason to think he will be able to stay on the field, should he even get on it in the first place:
#Seahawks participation report: Percy Harvin (concussion), Jordan Hill (groin) and Marshawn Lynch (not injury related) didn't practice.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 16, 2014
The other thing of note in that tweet from Tom Pelissero of USA Today is Marshawn Lynch's absence from practice. I don't think there is any reason to be concerned over his availability for the game. I'm sure the missed practice is just added rest after the bruising back went for 140 yards on 28 carries while deflecting countless tackle attempts by the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round.
That was Marshawn Lynch's first time over the century mark in rushing since Week 10.
A lot of that limited production was due to a decreased workload. Lynch didn't have more than 23 carries in any game in that span. This helped the 27-year-old come into the playoffs fresh.
What good is that now, however, after 28 punishing carries?
I don't expect Lynch to come out and fall down at the first sign of contact, but it's hard to believe that Beast Mode will be quite as ferocious as he was last week:
On top of that, the 49ers installed a new goal-line set that helped them against the power rushing of Carolina and will help them against Seattle:
I expect a close game featuring two outstanding defenses, but when it comes down to it, the 49ers' offense is better prepared to make more plays than the Seahawks, and that will be the difference.