The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers facing off would make headlines on a high-school field in August.
Throw in the raucous 12th man at CenturyLink Field and the fact that a spot at the Super Bowl is at stake and what is arguably the NFL’s best rivalry is sure to produce an NFC Championship Game to remember.
It is easy to point to the litany of superstars that will be lacing it up for this one as the critical difference-makers. After all, it’s difficult to imagine the Seahawks winning this contest without contributions from Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman, and vice versa with the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and Patrick Willis.
However, marquee contests like this are often decided by under-the-radar players who make crucial plays under the bright lights. Let’s see a few candidates to fill that role on Jan. 19 in Seattle.
Defense will be the name of the game with these two squads, as both rank in the top 10 in the league against the pass and the top 10 in the league against the run.
Despite the fact that the 49ers rank seventh against the pass, it is often names from the front seven like Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Justin Smith that dominate the headlines. They will certainly be counted on to stop Lynch and the Seahawks’ rushing attack but look for underrated Donte Whitner to make an impact from the safety spot.
Whitner sealed the victory over the Carolina Panthers in the divisional-round with a critical interception in the final minutes and will try to make a game-changing play against Seattle as well. Between his ball-hawking skills in the secondary and his ability to lay a big hit in run support, Whitner is one of the critical cogs in San Francisco’s defensive attack.
Percy Harvin has been ruled out of the NFC Championship Game, per Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com, with a concussion, which will make it even more difficult for the Seahawks to move the ball through the air against Whitner and company.
Expect the 49ers to keep a close eye on Golden Tate, which may just open Doug Baldwin up for a critical play. Baldwin actually served as Seattle’s leading receiver against New Orleans in the divisional round with 30 yards and it was his acrobatic catch on 3rd-and-3 late in the game that set up a Lynch touchdown.
If Baldwin’s press conference answer, via Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com, is any indication, he will be ready to exploit San Francisco’s defense:
Everybody says, ‘Doug has a chip on his shoulder.’ No, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, I have a boulder on my shoulder. … To me, it’s not trying to prove others wrong, it’s trying to prove myself right. And prove people who believe in me right, prove them right.
The Seahawks and 49ers are almost mirror-images of each other. Both have dominant defenses, nearly unstoppable rushing attacks and somewhat suspect passing games, and the two teams split their head-to-head showdowns this season.
That means the NFC Championship Game sets up nicely for a premier special-teams play to swing the momentum of the contest. LaMichael James is more than capable of doing just that.
The former Oregon Duck brings lightning speed to the table in the kick return game, despite the fact that he did not find the end zone on a return this season. While he may not have recorded a return touchdown, he did tally more than 10 yards a punt return in 2013.
All it will take in Seattle is one block to spring him free and completely alter what very well could be a low-scoring affair.
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