How do you separate two teams that are essentially mirror images of each other?
With the players no one is talking about, of course.
The strengths of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, at this point, are well known. Both have young dual-threat quarterbacks with unbelievable talent. Both have running backs who would much rather run through defenders than around them. Both have elite, physical defenses.
The head coaches may hate each other, but they have built two very similar, very successful teams.
You know about Tony D'Amato's "inches" speech from Any Given Sunday, but with these two heated rivals, Sunday's NFC Championship Game is going to be a game of centimeters.
Let's take a look at some players no one is talking about who could make that slight difference.
Jermaine Kearse, WR, Seahawks
As USA Today's Tom Pelissero reported, dynamic wide receiver Percy Harvin, who suffered a concussion against the New Orleans Saints last weekend, remained out of practice on Thursday:
Pete Carroll says Percy Harvin continues to go through concussion protocol. Not cleared. #Seahawks— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 16, 2014
He could always get one of those Great Gazoo helmets that Wes Welker wore on Sunday, but it's probably best to assume Harvin will be on the sideline against the 49ers. Should that happen, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse will remain as Seattle's wide receiving corps.
Tate and Baldwin lead the Seahawks in receiving this season, but don't overlook the kid who grew up about an hour south of CenturyLink Field and went to the University of Washington.
In a game that figures to be low scoring and mostly settled on the ground, it could be a big play in the passing game that proves to be the difference. Kearse, who has made several highlight-reel touchdown grabs and leads Seattle's trio with 15.7 yards per catch, is the Seahawks' best big-play threat.
After this tremendous touchdown grab against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5, ESPN's Louis Riddick offered a gushing comparison:
Does my preseason comparison of #Seahawks WR Jermaine Kearse to Victor Cruz seem that far-fetched?— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) October 6, 2013
Of course, if he doesn't come through with one of those big plays, Kearse can still contribute in the run game, where he's a really solid blocker. He showed that last Saturday when he flattened 246-pound linebacker David Hawthorne. Pro Football Focus' Pete Damilatis gave us a look at that one:
The Seahawks lost 5 yds on this run, but don't blame Jermaine Kearse. He put David Hawthorne on his back: pic.twitter.com/ALAO76grFH— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) January 14, 2014
Don't be surprised when you hear Kearse's name called on Sunday in some capacity.
Ahmad Brooks, LB, 49ers
Is Ahmad Brooks an "under-the-radar" player? Well, it probably depends on your definition of "radar" and "under" and "the," but some likely don't believe he belongs there.
Still, for as much potential as he has to completely alter Seattle's offense, and for as much attention as fellow linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith get, I'd say Brooks is flying a bit too far under the radar.
After recording just 8.5 sacks during the regular season, the seven-year veteran has tallied 4.5 quarterback takedowns in San Francisco's two playoff wins.
As the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch noted, Brooks is already close to a playoff record:
#49ers Ahmad Brooks has 4.5 sacks in 2 playoff games. Most in NFL postseason since sacks became official stat in '82: 6 (held by 3 players).— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) January 16, 2014
Russell Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at escaping pressure and making throws on the run, but if Brooks is able to create the same kind of pressure from the previous two games—whether that means recording sacks or freeing up any of San Francisco's other scary defenders—he can really keep the Seahawks off balance.
And even with Marshawn Lynch running well, you've seen how Seattle's offense can become stagnant if it isn't moving the ball through the air.
If Brooks runs rampant on Sunday, the Niners have a tremendous chance of leaving Seattle with a victory.
Byron Maxwell, CB, Seahawks
When the Seattle Seahawks lost Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Browner opposite Richard Sherman, the defense didn't skip a beat. In fact, according to the numbers, it improved.
Take a look at opposing quarterbacks' regular-season splits against Seattle with and without Browner:
|Completion %||Passing Yards Per Game||TDs Per Game||INTs Per Game||Avg. QB Rating|
Part of it has been a team effort by Seattle, but it would be a mistake to overlook Byron Maxwell as a crucial reason for the defense being successful sans Browner.
Sherman, who most believe is the best cornerback in the league, doesn't shadow wide receivers as much as many think. That means there will be times when Maxwell lines up with Michael Crabtree and times when he lines up with Anquan Boldin.
And according to Sherman, via his article on The MMQB, there's no reason to think Maxwell won't hold his own on Sunday:
(Maxwell is) one of the many reasons I believe we’ll not only survive, but also dominate on our way to the Super Bowl.
At this point, he’s well-prepared, and he’s playing as well as any corner in the NFL. He understands that when you begin to change things because the stage is bigger and the lights are brighter, you start making mistakes. So he’ll approach the NFC championship the same way he approaches every game.
It’s the reason I won’t be asking to shadow any one player when the 49ers come here Sunday, and it’s part of the reason we’ll survive this marathon season for one more week.
With Crabtree in the lineup, the Niners have yet to lose a game and have seen their offense thrive, partly because teams can't turn enough focus to all of their weapons.
But against Seattle, Sherman will likely shut down whoever of Crabtree or Boldin is on his side. If Maxwell can hold his own with the other dynamic receiver, the Hawks will be able to slow the clicking offense and make Colin Kaepernick move through his progressions—something he has struggled with in the past.