San Francisco 49ers: NFL's Toughest Team Has Chance to Prove Its Mettle

Jasper SchererAnalyst IIJanuary 19, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Running back Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers breaks free for a 51-yard run as tight end Vernon Davis #85 blocks cornerback Richard Sherman #25 and free safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks before pulling up short of a touchdown to run down the clock late in the fourth quarter on December 8, 2013 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  The play set up the winning field goal as the 49ers won 19-17.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have won eight straight games, but it's been far from a comfortable win streak.

It took a last-minute field goal against the Seattle Seahawks, a NaVorro Bowman deflected pick-six against the Atlanta Falcons and last-second field goals against the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers for the Niners to maintain their winning edge. Still, what matters most is that the 49ers are in the NFC Championship Game, no matter how they got there.

But the Niners are a stronger team because of their hard-fought victories, which makes them as likely of a team as any to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. Yes, the Seahawks demolished the 49ers in each of the teams' last two matchups at CenturyLink Field. But as SB Nation's Trevor Wood aptly notes, Colin Kaepernick and Co. have been constantly tested in the last year or so.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20:  Matt Ryan (R) #2 of the Atlanta Falcons congratulates Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers after the 49ers won 28-24 in the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome on January 20, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For one of the prime examples, look no further than last year's NFC Championship Game. In front of a deafeningly hostile Atlanta crowd, the Niners downed the Falcons after falling behind 17-0 in one of the grittiest playoff wins in recent memory.

Now, San Francisco will be asked to replicate the victory. Once again, they'll face a talented team and a raucous crowd. But that's where the toughness comes into play. The Niners have been here before, and one would be hard-pressed to find a more prepared opponent for Seattle's home-field advantage than San Francisco.

In fact, the Niners will be playing in Seattle for the third time since December, 2012. Additionally, they've had all of a season to rebound from their early-season loss to the Seahawks, which culminated in a victory in Week 14 (albeit in San Francisco).

But what really gives the Niners the edge is their vastly improved offense. The 49ers are an entirely different team on that side of the ball, thanks to Michael Crabtree's return and Colin Kaepernick's resurgence and inspired play. Neither of those elements were present in Week 2 this season, when the Seahawks manhandled the Niners.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Running back Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers gets ganged up on by linebacker K.J. Wright #50 and free safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks in the first quarter on December 8, 2013 at Candlestick Park i
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

In short, don't sell the 49ers short because of their past failures in Seattle.

One of the keys for San Francisco will be to score early, because it's easy for visiting teams to fall out of contention at CenturyLink Field. (The Seahawks didn't lose a game at home when leading at the half this season.)

Then again, if any team were to break that trend, it would be the Niners. After all, don't forget about last year's aforementioned NFC Championship comeback.

Kaepernick will look for better opening results this time around, and as of late, the 49ers have been getting it done early. In fact, during its eight-game winning streak, San Francisco has outscored opponents 55-0 in the first quarter.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Linebacker Patrick Willis #52 of the San Francisco 49ers blocks the path of wide receiver Golden Tate #81 of the Seattle Seahawks on a 4-yard catch in the first quarter on December 8, 2013 at Candlestick Park in San Franc
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

That means the importance of a fast start cannot be overstated, especially when grabbing the momentum in front of a rowdy Seattle crowd could give the Niners the push they need. But "grabbing the momentum" constitutes more than just kicking field goals when given the opportunity.

All too often, the 49ers take hold of the game, only to fail to take advantage of their momentum. They settled for early field goals against the Packers and Panthers in the playoffs this year, both of which nearly cost them the game. For the Niners to repeat as NFC champions, that will have to change on Sunday.

 

All statistics courtesy of ESPN.