This is why people love football.
On one side of the NFL conference championships, you've got Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning; on the other side, it's the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Seattle Seahawks, which is becoming one of the best rivalries in the league. These teams have been battling one another for NFC West supremacy, and that has helped to build a healthy hatred between the players and fanbases.
There should be little separating the 49ers and Seahawks. They're both like one another in their reliance on a power-running game to compliment a steady quarterback. In addition, their defenses are among the best in the NFL.
With the gulf between the two so minute, it will be important for the teams to accomplish these tasks in order to ensure victory.
San Francisco 49ers
Put the Game in the Hands of Russell Wilson
By now, you've probably seen the stat NFL on ESPN posted to Twitter floating around the interwebs. Marshawn Lynch has found an answer for the 49ers defense:
Individual 100-yard rushers allowed by the 49ers (last 3 seasons): Marshawn Lynch - 3. Everybody else - 2.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 16, 2014
When he goes into "Beast Mode," the Seahawks are nearly unstoppable, especially at home. It doesn't matter how good you are defensively; there's no answer for Seattle when it strikes an offensive balance.
Lynch pounds the ball up the middle, while Russell Wilson picks apart the defense through the air.
The lesser of two evils there is Wilson. He went off against the Falcons in the divisional round last year, but a lot of quarterbacks did that to the Atlanta secondary last year.
It remains to be seen to a certain extent if Wilson's the kind of quarterback who can put the offense on his back. He's averaging 209.8 yards a game this year, and he's only in his second season.
Since a 23-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 11, Kaepernick has thrown for 1,818 yards and 12 touchdowns, while rushing for 302 yards and 2 scores. In that same time frame, Wilson has passed for 1,098 yards, thrown 9 touchdowns and rushed for 146 yards and no scores, while the Seahawks offense sputtered in losses to San Francisco and Arizona.
San Francisco needs to make Wilson win this game.
Build an Early Lead
The last thing the 49ers can afford to have happen is get into a deep hole early in the game.
Back in Week 2, San Francisco got down 12-0 in the second quarter, which allowed the Seahawks to take control of the game. The Niners would eventually lose 29-3. It was even worse when the 49ers made the trip to CenturyLink Field last year. Seattle got ahead 21-0, and the lead grew to 28-6 by halftime.
In addition to avoiding the aforementioned problem, building an early lead could also serve to tone down the home crowd. It's no secret that the Seahawks have a massive home-field advantage.
Jim Harbaugh already acknowledged that he's training his team to work without any audible adjustments on the field, per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com:
“Other teams may approach it differently,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said on Monday.
“(We) got to be able to communicate without hearing very well. So you can simulate that, somewhat, in practice – signals, hand signals, verbal signals, body language, reading lips. Different ways.”
If the 49ers are down double digits at halftime, it's game over man.
Don't Get Too Conservative
The Seahawks toed a fine line between protecting a lead and getting way too conservative in the divisional round. They built up a 16-0 lead and then sat on the ball. They took a 23-8 lead in the fourth quarter, but still, the New Orleans Saints had no business getting to within eight points in the final seconds.
Seattle was in control for most of the game. Instead of asserting dominance and putting the game out of reach for good, the team went into a shell. Wilson completed 9 of 18 passes for 103 yards.
In the event the Seahawks get a double-digit lead, Pete Carroll can't get too gun-shy. He has to be willing to go for the jugular and take the 49ers out completely if presented the opportunity.
Make Colin Kaepernick Check Down to Other Receivers
As good as Kaepernick is, he's not yet what you'd consider an elite passing quarterback.
Part of that is down to the fact that he lacks a ton of great weapons, some of whom have missed major time because of injury.
However, Kaepernick is an unconventional QB, so he can sometimes have trouble doing the more conventional QB tasks, like checking down to his receivers and reading the field. As Andy Benoit of The MMQB pointed out:
While defenses fear Kaepernick’s running, they also know exactly how to make him uncomfortable: by keeping him in the pocket. Inevitably, there will be crucial situations in which Kaepernick has to make plays strictly with his arm. The Niners learned this the hard way at the end of last year’s Super Bowl. With the Ravens often using an all-out blitz in the red zone, San Francisco had to ask its quarterback to make quick, tight-window throws. Kaepernick did not come through.
The more Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell take Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin out of the game, the more Kaepernick is forced to look to other options. That could force him into making bad throws, which could lead to interceptions.