There may be bigger rivalries from a historical standpoint in the NFL, but there isn’t a better one in the league today than that between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
Sure, these games may not get as many headlines as those between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers or even the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, but there is no love lost in the Pacific Northwest between these two teams.
When the 49ers travel to Seattle on Jan. 19 to take on the Seahawks, they will be testing their mettle against their rivals and arguably the loudest fans in the NFL. The last two times Colin Kaepernick and company traveled to CenturyLink Field they were embarrassed to the tune of 42-13 and 29-3.
Will the 49ers be able to turn their luck around in front of the 12th man? Time will tell, but let’s dig into a breakdown of the key storylines for the NFC Championship tilt.
The Unbeatable Seattle Secondary
Seattle has arguably the most talented team in the entire league, so it has far more than just one strength, but the Seahawks’ biggest advantage is its intimidating secondary.
No team in the NFL allowed fewer passing yards per game than the 172 Seattle did, and the 49ers aren’t exactly the Denver Broncos when it comes to throwing the ball. San Francisco ranked 30th in the league in passing yards, but that doesn’t exactly tell the whole story because there were key injuries throughout the year that have now healed.
Richard Sherman may be the household name on this unit, but the likes of Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Byron Maxwell give this defense weapons all over the field. ESPN.com’s Elizabeth Merrill breaks down how great this unit truly is:
None of the promotion seemed over the top. The secondary is Seattle's identity, and it is punishing, loud and yet somehow playful. It is intimidating, helping collect a league-high 28 interceptions and a wide array of bruised bodies and egos. It can be maddening, watching Sherman and his buddies flying around, gesturing wildly, congratulating each other like high school boys after every big play.
Don’t let the trash talking and bravado fool you, though. Seattle is much more substance than style, even if it is fully stocked on style as well.
Kaepernick will have a difficult time moving the ball through the air even with a full litany of weapons at his disposal.
Can the 49ers Run the Ball?
Considering just how great Seattle’s secondary is, the 49ers may have to move the ball on the ground if they hope to win the NFC.
Only two teams in the league averaged more yards per game on the ground than San Francisco, largely because of its versatility and the different looks it can bring. Frank Gore leads the way as a bruising power back who still manages to burst through the hole after all these years, but Kaepernick and Kendall Hunter provide some other options.
Even LaMichael James could get involved as a change-of-pace back, but he is more of a return specialist at this point of his career.
Look for the 49ers to try the read-option, straight handoffs in single-back formations and even draw plays to establish an early lead in the raucous environment. Seattle’s crowd can never fully be taken out of a game, but the best chance to at least neutralize it is by controlling the clock and pace of the game with the rushing attack.
Can Russell Wilson Make the Big Play?
For as many headlines as Seattle’s defense draws, San Francisco’s is nearly as good.
The 49ers rank seventh in the NFL against the pass and fourth against the run and tout elite players at every level of the defense. From Justin Smith on the defensive line to Patrick Willis at linebacker and Donte Whitner at safety, among others, there are few holes for opposing offenses to exploit.
Seattle is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards per game, so it would only make sense if the 49ers key on stopping Marshawn Lynch and the run.
That means Russell Wilson may have to make a play with his arm if the Seahawks hope to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. He did throw for more than 3,000 yards on the year and 26 touchdowns, but he wasn't asked to win many games with the elite talent around him.
Wilson will be without Percy Harvin thanks to concussions, making life even more difficult for Seattle’s signal-caller.
The NFC representative in the Super Bowl may ultimately depend on whether Wilson can win the game in the fourth quarter against an elite defense.