Just as many suspected back in training camp last summer, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will be facing off in this year's NFC Championship Game with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
These two Pacific Northwest rivals are loaded with more talent than anyone else in the NFC and will clash for the third time this season. The Seahawks handled the 49ers 29-3 back in Week 2, but Colin Kaepernick and company got revenge in the Week 14 rematch in San Francisco, 19-17.
Both squads are virtually mirrors of each other with dual-threat quarterbacks, impressive rushing attacks and seemingly insurmountable defenses. It will be a bruising affair that will test the mettle of both teams.
Home-field advantage has been given even more attention than usual leading up to this matchup because it has been so critical in this rivalry. The team playing in front of its home fans won both matchups this year and has dominated the series over the last few seasons. In fact, Seattle has lost only one home game with Russell Wilson under center.
While pointing to the deafening crowd noise at CenturyLink Field and the raucous atmospheres that both stadiums create are the obvious takeaways, recently it has been the team with the stronger rushing attack that has ultimately decided the game's outcome.
The Seahawks ranked fourth in the league in rushing yards per game at 136.8, largely because of Lynch’s bruising style and Wilson’s ability to make plays with his legs. The 49ers check in one spot ahead of Seattle, racking up an average of 137.6 yards a game on the ground.
The razor-thin difference in rushing is just another example of how closely matched these squads are heading into the showdown.
Nate Davis of USA Today breaks down just how important the performances of Lynch and Gore will be in the NFC title clash:
Their performances in their respective buildings tend to be an accurate barometer of the rivalry's outcome. Gore has averaged 127 rushing yards against Seattle at Candlestick Park, and the 49ers are 5-2 in those home games; he's only been good for 52 yards per game in nine appearances in Seattle, and his team is 3-6 in those games. Lynch is 0-4 in San Francisco, averaging fewer than 60 yards, but has gone 2-1 against the 49ers in Seattle, where he's churned his way to 105 yards on average and has scored at least one TD in all three matchups.
The numbers don’t lie—the winner of the game between the 49ers and Seahawks almost always enjoys an advantage from their superstar running back. It isn’t a coincidence that the team is usually the home squad, but an impressive effort from Gore would go a long way toward neutralizing the crowd noise in Seattle.
As for the Seahawks, Percy Harvin will miss the game because of a concussion, so they will have to focus even more of its attention on preparing its rushing attack.
However, both running backs will be dealing with the same problem—a stellar defense lining up on the other side of the field.
The Seahawks and 49ers rank seventh and fourth in the NFL, respectively, in defense against the run, and names such as Patrick Willis and Earl Thomas will be looking to shut down Lynch and Gore.
It may be simplifying things a bit, but if recent history holds, whichever team is able to control the clock and pace of the game with its rushing attack will be holding up the George Halas Trophy after the game.