The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks know each other well as NFC West rivals that have already met twice this season, which adds even more intrigue to the 2014 NFC Championship Game.
The two sides split the season series, but on Jan. 19, the 49ers must make a return visit to CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks won in a major way back in Week 2, 29-3.
Both teams have undergone changes since then, but their abilities to adapt are what have allowed them to reach this point, so fans should not expect another lopsided affair. Like any dance between these adversaries, a few keys will dictate which team comes out on top.
Seahawks: Avoid the Pass
As much as it would be a storybook ending for the Seahawks if quarterback Russell Wilson suddenly snapped out of his slump in the conference title game, the coaching staff will simply be throwing him to the wolves if it asks him to consistently throw the ball.
Wilson has been miserable in his last five outings, as the numbers and ESPN's Mike Sando illustrate:
|Divisional vs. NO||9||18||103||50.0||5.72||0||0|
|Week 17 vs. STL||15||23||172||65.2||7.48||1||0|
|Week 16 vs. ARI||11||27||108||40.7||4.00||1||1|
|Week 15 @NYG||18||27||206||66.7||7.63||1||1|
|Week 14 @SF||15||25||199||60.0||7.96||1||1|
Russell @DangeRussWilson on 3rd down, last 5 games: 5.3 yards per pass att, 70.1 passer rating, 3 rush for 15 yards and 1 FD, 6.7 Total QBR— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) January 13, 2014
Now, remember that he also threw for just 142 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the Week 2 victory.
Believe it or not, that would probably be a favorable line for Wilson in the title game. More pass attempts would mean the coaching staff has asked him to do too much against an elite defense that allows an average of just 17 points per game.
49ers: Take to the Air
Colin Kaepernick has in no way been any more reliable than Wilson through the air in recent weeks or against the Seahawks in their two showdowns this year. But he has the weapons around him to succeed in the face of a Seattle defense that ranks No. 1 in points allowed (14.4), yards allowed (273.6), takeaways (39), red-zone percentage (36) and total QBR (29).
This much is obvious thanks to some nice digging by the folks at Fox Sports:
Over the last 3 postseasons, the top three players in receiving yards are ALL current @49ers: Anquan Boldin Vernon Davis Michael Crabtree— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 19, 2014
Anquan Boldin tops that list and has been on an absolute tear this postseason. Against the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round, he caught eight passes for 136 yards, prompting head coach Jim Harbaugh to sing his praises, via ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Jim Harbaugh on Anquan Boldin: "He's as tough as any player at any position in the National Football League, both mentally and physically."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 14, 2014
Kaepernick can also take comfort in Michael Crabtree, who returned in Week 13 from an Achilles injury. The 49ers have not lost since.
And do not forget tight end Vernon Davis, who has caught a touchdown in three straight games and is primed for a big day with the Seahawks focused on the outside receivers.
Kaepernick will be able to find success through the air on quick-hitting plays, which will also open things up for himself and running back Frank Gore on the ground.
Seahawks: Ride the Beast
Individual 100-yard rushers allowed by the 49ers (last 3 seasons): Marshawn Lynch - 3. Everybody else - 2.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 16, 2014
Lynch's violent running style simply works against the 49ers, which explains why he was able to run for 170 yards and three touchdowns against them in two games this season. Of that total, 98 yards and two scores came at home in the Week 2 blowout.
At home once again Sunday, Seattle simply has to feed Lynch. Not only does that protect Wilson, but Lynch seems to get better with the more handoffs he receives, and that helps to keep the San Francisco offense off the field.
The 49ers simply do not have an answer for Lynch this year. It will show in a big way if the Seahawks play it smart and stay on the ground Sunday.