Of course, with the rubber match featuring Super Bowl XLVIII entrance rights on the line.
Even though this contest extends well beyond gridiron matchups and into the realm of the players’ psyches, on-field battles are as crucial as ever.
Enter: linemen, linebackers, 'backs and dual-threat quarterbacks.
The 49ers and Seahawks are teams with similar constructions who operate in analogous ways.
They control the line of scrimmage on both sides and feature a bulldozing rushing attack. They play shutdown defense and boast men under center who win with both their arms and legs.
San Francisco’s Iupati, Frank Gore and Kaepernick find their equally important counterparts in Breno Giacomini (as a lineman), Lynch and Wilson of Seattle.
Bowman and Patrick Willis lead the 49ers’ superior front seven, while cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas power the Seahawks’ elite defensive backfield.
But both squads are stout up front with dynamic pass-rushers. Big scoring plays against these league-dominant units are rare occurrences as well.
And because Seattle’s CenturyLink Field will host this conference championship, the Seahawks own a pivotal edge with the NFL’s most feared home-field advantage.
The 49ers are 0-2 in the Pacific Northwest under Kaepernick and head coach Jim Harbaugh. They have suffered two humiliating defeats in 71-16 fashion since 2012.
Controlling individual matchups thus becomes all the more imperative for San Francisco.
Mitigating the crowd’s earthquake-producing effect is not something it can alleviate directly.
Winning a few head-to-heads on the field, however, will greatly benefit the road team.
Here now are the top six matchups for the 49ers when they square off with Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Note: Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin did not pass his concussion protocol testing on Thursday, Jan. 16 and is doubtful for Sunday’s game, according to Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports. Harvin’s unclear status effectively eliminates him from this list.
6. Outside Linebacker vs. Offensive Tackle
When the 49ers outside linebackers win, the Seahawks offensive tackles lose.
And when those trench protectors fail, so does Wilson and Seattle’s passing game.
Pass-rushing extraordinaire Aldon Smith and All-Pro Ahmad Brooks led San Francisco with 8.5 sacks apiece in the regular season. That includes three quarterback takedowns and 15 total pressures against the Seahawks in Weeks 2 and 14, per Pro Football Focus.
The duo has been just as dominant in the playoffs with seven sacks and 19 pressures.
Seahawks tackles Russell Okung and Giacomini have not been entirely up to snuff against the 49ers this season.
At first glance, they have surrendered only one sack and eight pressures, per PFF. But looking at when those protection breakdowns occurred and the subsequent implications reveals their significance:
- Aldon Smith’s first pressure in Week 2 forced Wilson’s interception to free safety Eric Reid during the opening quarter.
- Beating Okung on Seattle’s next drive kept Wilson in the pocket and facilitated Glenn Dorsey’s interior rush/sack.
- Smith’s later two sacks—albeit against backup LT Paul McQuistan—occurred on third down and resulted in two Seattle punts.
- Brooks sealed the edge on Wilson’s right against Giacomini during each of these instances, thereby helping create the sack opportunities.
- He did so again when he flushed Wilson into the arms of Bowman in Week 14. The powerful takedown set the tone on the very first play of the game.
- Aldon Smith also created an opening for teammate Justin Smith’s sack on third down in these teams’ second matchup.
- Ray McDonald burned Okung for another sack on 3rd-and-long for good measure.
The key here is that a successful outside rush keeps Wilson in the pocket. Aldon Smith and Brooks then record sacks of their own or push Seattle’s quarterback into San Francisco’s interior pass-rushers.
Not doing so allows Wilson to make plays downfield when he rolls out from the tackle box.
See: 51-yard pass to Doug Baldwin in Week 2 (set up a Lynch touchdown run).
Effective outside-to-inside pressure instead forces interceptions (see: first bullet point) or otherwise stifles potential scoring drives by the Seahawks.
The 49ers will need all possible turnovers—takeaways, punts and the like—in the unfriendly confines of CenturyLink Field.
5. Offensive Tackle vs. Defensive End
This next matchup can’t really get any more fundamental.
The Seahawks generated three sacks and 21 quarterback pressures against Kaepernick in Week 2. The 49ers lost 29-3.
See the difference?
Niners right tackle Anthony Davis registered his worst day of 2013 in pass protection during the September divisional battle.
Pro Football Focus deemed his one sack and five pressures allowed worthy of a negative-3.0 grade.
Defensive end Michael Bennett overwhelmed the usually reliable blocker in the first quarter. The sack of Kaepernick resulted in a nine-yard loss and negated good starting field position for San Francisco at the 35-yard line.
Davis’ second shortcoming was far more egregious.
Although the analysts at PFF did not attribute it totally to Davis, DE Cliff Avril outmuscled No. 76 and strip-sacked Kaepernick. The fumble gave way to a Seahawks field goal and 5-0 lead.
Davis was successful on the initial protection, but Avril produced the greater overall effort.
Kaepernick compiled the most ineffective outing of his career due to the game-long pass rush applied by Seattle’s defense.
It’s no surprise that he threw a touchdown pass and tripled his QBR and passer rating when the 49ers cut those pressures in half in their December victory over Seattle.
Blindside protector Joe Staley was in stellar form during both matchups, while Davis clearly amped up his game the second time around.
They must continue that work on Sunday.
Kaepernick is the least accurate NFL passer when pressured, according to PFF. He’s also completing just 35.3 percent (6-of-17) of his throws under duress in these playoffs.
(Compare his 55.1 accuracy percentage in the regular season to Wilson’s 61.9.)
He will need sufficient time and open passing lanes so the 49ers can avoid being shut out from the end zone in Seattle for the second time in a row.
As phenomenal as he is when using his legs, Kap must succeed in the passing game as much as he does on the ground.
Let’s now move to a certain 4.3-running target on the receiving end of Kaepernick’s throws.
4. Tight End vs. Linebacker/Safety
Question: What did Vernon Davis not do in mid-September that he later accomplished in Week 14? And both playoff matchups for that matter?
San Francisco’s touchdown leader has manufactured end-zone paydirt in eight of the team’s last nine games.
The fourth of those 15 scoring plays occurred in a critical second-quarter moment against the Seahawks.
The 49ers had produced points on their previous three drives. But they looked up at a 14-9 deficit as the waning seconds of the first half remained.
On 3rd-and-8 with just six seconds left on the clock, Kaepernick fired a bullet across the goal line. Davis beat Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and secured the low-and-away strike.
San Francisco regained momentum and the always-vital scoring lead heading into halftime at 16-14.
Compare that pivotal instant with a red-zone scenario that did not bear similar fruit back in Week 2.
Key special teamer Craig Dahl blocked Jon Ryan’s punt on Seattle’s first offensive series of the game. Kaepernick and Co. took over at the Seahawks’ 33-yard line.
It was an absolutely perfect opportunity for the first and go-ahead score.
But instead of controlling the overbearing influence of the 12th man, the 49ers did nothing but fuel its deleterious rage.
Kaepernick threw too low to Davis as he crossed the goal line. The ball bounced up and into the hands of free safety Earl Thomas.
There was an opening between Kam Chancellor and corner Walter Thurmond, but the timing was off.
Fast-forwarding to Sunday, Davis must again win his matchups with the Seahawks strong safety over top and their linebackers underneath.
Chancellor is more adept at playing in the box as a de facto outside ‘backer and defending the run. Despite holding New Orleans Saints all-world tight end Jimmy Graham to without a catch in the divisional round, he is a bit susceptible in the passing game.
He also allowed a reception every 19.3 coverage snaps, ranking in the bottom half of the 70 safeties graded (No. 44).
Davis must exploit this weakness. The same goes for outside ‘backer K.J. Wright, who will not operate at 100 percent Sunday (surgically repaired foot) if he does play at all, according to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times.
Also, Davis is a key in-line blocker for Gore’s exploits on the ground. He must further his PFF-awarded positive grade from Week 14 that helped spring his running back to a 51-yard run on the game-winning drive.
Kaepernick and the 49ers need every ounce of Davis’ game-changing self in the conference championship.
San Francisco is 12-1 when No. 85 scores a touchdown. Enough said.
3. Defensive Tackle vs. Offensive Tackle
These next two selections highlight the considerable importance of winning in the trenches.
The man known as “Beast Mode” has rushed for half of his 12 touchdowns behind right tackle this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Four of those came with Giacomini blocking in front, including two of Lynch’s three scores against San Francisco.
The Skittles-loving running back has simply killed the 49ers from the backfield.
Ray McDonald must ensure that does not happen again.
San Francisco’s left defensive tackle earned his only major negative grade in run defense against the Seahawks on September 15. McDonald could not beat a double-team on Lynch’s first score or stop him at the goal line on the second.
Despite amassing a high-positive mark in Week 14, he was still partly complicit on Seattle’s second-quarter touchdown. Lynch’s successful cutback occurred after McDonald over-pursued to the right and lost his individual battle.
Otherwise, Lynch will devastate the 49ers on the field, clock and scoreboard when running off the Seahawks’ right front.
McDonald cannot let him taste the rainbow on Sunday.
2. Offensive Guard/Center vs. Defensive Tackle
When the interior linemen execute their blocks up front, the 49ers run the ball well.
And when successful interior blocking leads to rushing production, the 49ers generally win.
When they win in the trenches, so do the 49ers.
Gore, for his part, prefers wearing down defenses with steady inside rushes. One-third of his nine touchdowns came via Iupati-Goodwin combo blocks as well, per PFF.
The 49ers are a perfect 10-0 (playoffs included) in 2013 when their all-time leading rusher scores or surpasses the 100-yard mark.
That includes a 19-17 victory over Seattle when Gore totaled 110 yards on the ground (credit Adam Snyder for filling in for an injured Iupati).
Thus, it’s no coincidence that San Francisco lost to the Seahawks in Week 2 when the aforementioned triumvirate failed in their respective roles.
Seattle’s defensive tackles Mebane, Tony McDaniel, D’Anthony Smith and Clinton McDonald amassed a collective 2.2 by PFF in the Seahawks’ September win.
They bottled up Gore to the tune of nine carries for a measly 16 yards (1.8 average).
On the flip side, Mebane, McDaniel and McDonald accrued a combined negative-1.4 against the run when Gore averaged 5.8 yards per carry en route to his 110-yard aggregate.
Come NFC Championship Sunday, the 49ers’ two best interior blockers must dominate.
Only then can Gore do the same in leading a ball-control offense and keeping the 12th man at bay.
Remember, the Seahawks won the opening matchup by maintaining possession for 36:43.
San Francisco took Round 2 by holding onto the ball for a majority 32:28.
As for the rubber match, a similar winning number needs to materialize through the efforts of Iupati, Goodwin and Gore.
1b. Michael Crabtree vs. Richard Sherman
The time for specific positional headlines is now obsolete—marquee names only.
No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree did not suit up for the 49ers in Week 2 while recovering from his torn Achilles.
Top Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman easily shut down San Francisco’s receiving corps, earning a positive-2.2 coverage grade by Pro Football Focus. Anquan Boldin had just one catch for seven yards—and it came against an inside linebacker (Wagner).
Crabtree returned for the second matchup in Week 14.
This time, Sherman was very much on the losing end. He downgraded to a negative-2.3, with two penalties and Boldin’s 23-yard reception attached to his name.
Yes, Crabtree only tallied a four-yard catch against Sherman and 40 yards all told.
But his mere presence affected Sherman’s abilities in coverage and benefited other 49ers pass-catchers.
Boldin, Davis and Quinton Patton can better produce against Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Walter Thurmond and Jeremy Lane because Crabtree represents a true No. 1 threat.
And if they don’t, he will.
When asked if Sherman was the best corner in the league, Crabtree was wholly skeptical.
Per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
Uh, no, I don’t think so…I don’t know (anything) about the best cornerbacks in the league. I just know teams. We are playing the Seattle Seahawks…It is not just one guy. It is the entire defense.
Most importantly, the 49ers don’t lose with Crabtree patrolling the gridiron this year.
They are an undefeated 8-0 since Week 12—and there isn’t any need to knock on wood.
1a. Colin Kaepernick vs. CenturyLink Defense
At this point, it all boils down to one Colin Kaepernick exorcising his CenturyLink Field, Seattle-based demons.
Can he do it?
The 49ers field general has already secured vengeance against two of the three upper-echelon defenses he’s faced in 2013.
Despite winning the first NFC West matchup, he threw for more yards (310), a higher percentage (61.8) and an above average 68.6 QBR and did not turn the ball over in a playoff-clinching 23-20 victory over the Cardinals on December 29.
In Week 10 versus the Carolina Panthers, Kaepernick failed to the extent of 91 yards passing, a 4.14 average, one interception and an abysmal 7.7 QBR.
Kap then came back in the divisional round with an eye-popping resolve.
He doubled his passing yardage and scoring total, and he produced a QBR nearly 10 times greater than his previous metric (71.9) against the same No. 2 contingent.
Even though Kaepernick increased his statistical output across the board in a win over the Seahawks in Week 14, he still has never won in Seattle.
In order to reverse an ugly historical trend, Kaepernick must do the following:
- Forget the jet engine-level background noise from the 12th man.
- Communicate play calls through non-verbal means in a timely fashion.
- Avoid gratuitous audibles at the line and subsequent delay of game penalties.
- Stay patient, survey the field, go through progressions and find the open receiver.
- First downs are equal opportunity plays; make the decision to run or pass in a decisive manner.
- Play angry, play confident and make winning plays by all means necessary.
Is that asking too much of a third-year quarterback? Against the league’s unrivaled defense on the road, no less?
Not for a supremely motivated player avenging a last-second Super Bowl defeat.
“It’s going to be a knockdown, drag out game,” said Kaepernick to the Associated Press via ESPN.
Watch for Kaepernick to knock down those Seattle demons and drag out a win for the 49ers on Sunday.
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