The NFC championship game is upon us and it features the match up that seemingly the entire football universe has been has been longing for. The rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks is a very recent development, going back only about two years. Even thought it’s been a relatively short time span, the hatred that these two franchises have for each other is absolute. To quote KVWN Channel 4′s Ron Burgundy “Boy, that escalated quickly”. The fact that they are finally meeting in a very meaningful game feels like manifest destiny. This has a similar feel to the 49ers/Dallas Cowboys rivalry of the early 90′s when they met in three straight NFC title matches. These are clearly the two best teams in the conference. While this rivalry hasn’t quite reached the level of those 49ers and Cowboys face offs, the contempt the two organizations hold for each other is felt on all levels, from the fanbases, to the players, the head coaches and the front offices. On Sunday, the rivalry will finally mature beyond the fans dueling acts of douchebaggery. It will outgrow head coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh bickering. It will move past each teams semi-creepy obsession with the others practice squad cast offs. The conflict between Seattle and San Francisco is finally ready for its first defining battle.
Coming into Sunday’s tilt versus Seattle the 49ers offense is playing at its highest level of the entire season. This is an obviously ideal scenario for an NFL team, putting your best product on the field at the most vital time of the season. According to Pro Football Focus Colin Kaepernick‘s grade over the first 10 games of the season was a -7.1. His grade over the last 8 games was an even 10.0. He’s thrown 12 touchdown passes and only been intercepted twice. Kaepernick has had two completely miserable outings in his only two starts at Century Link Field. Kaepernick playing like the quarterback of the last two months will go a long way toward a victory on Sunday. In his young career he has already won three road playoff games and flashed his full arsenal of talent on football’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl. There is absolutely no reason in the world that Colin Kaepernick should be at all phased out by the challenge that Sunday’s game presents him.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman must call his best game of the season versus the leagues top defense. It is vital he gets the 49ers offense in gear early, rolling downhill and finding a consistent rhythm. That calls for finding the perfect balance between the run and the pass. Roman has a tendency to disregard Frank Gore, let alone Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. The Seahawks showed a vulnerability to the run in the divisional playoff round against the Saints. This could have partly due to Seattle concentrating on stopping one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks in Drew Brees. Regardless of the reason, the Saints primary running backs reeled off 108 yards in 24 carries. The 49ers would be wise to employ a similar strategy. The ground game will help lessen the impact of Seattle’s top flight secondary. And if Seattle employs the opposite strategy than they did last week and commits to stopping the run? Then this plays into Roman’s hands, as he does not seem to have a problem with dialing up a pass play regardless of the down and distance. The offense is going to rollout an impressive array of passing targets on Sunday. It will be up to Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Quinton Patton to win battles and make plays versus the most physical secondary the league has to offer.
Defensively the 49ers are theoretically built to dominate the exact style of offense that the Seahawks are currently dependent upon. If Seattle boasts the best defensive backs in the NFL, the 49ers field the finest group of linebackers. The 49ers strength is their front seven and their run defense. In what has become an annual tradition, the defense has not allowed a 100 yard rusher in the 2013 season. The Seahawks Marshawn Lynch is a top five running back in the NFL and slowing him down goes a long way toward shutting down the Seattle attack. Against the 49ers this season Lynch has run 48 times and gained 170 yards, an average of 3.5 yards a carry. Holding the sixth leading rusher in the NFL to a half yard under his average is very much a win for the 49ers defense.
Seattle QB Russell Wilson has not been asked to do much in the last few games. Against the Saints the Seahawks rushed the ball 35 times and passed it only 18. Wilson has been the direct opposite of Kaepernick. In his first 12 games of 2013 PFF had him graded at an incredible +24.6. In his last five games he has regressed to a -1.4. He failed to throw for more than 200 yards in four of those five games, hitting 206 versus the Giants. Those games include going 11 of 27 for 108 yards vs Arizona and 9 of 18 for 103 yards last week against the Saints. Meanwhile, the 49ers pass defense held one of the NFL’s best passers, Aaron Rogers, to 177 yards through the air in the wild card round. Last week facing Cam Newton they allowed him to pass for 267 yards, 59 of which came on a wide receiver screen with 12 seconds left in a two touchdown game. That’s as good as it’s going to get in back to back performances against playoff quarterbacks and on the road, no less.
The big intangible here for the 49ers is playing in Seattle, where they have wildly underperformed in their last two appearances. The story line the media exhausts this week or any other week when a team travels to Seattle is the Seahwaks home field advantage. The Seahawks never had this sort of home field advantage until they put together a ridiculously talented team. Just two years ago they finished 4-4 at home, losing to a 5-11 Washington team and a 9-7 Bengals squad starting a rookie quarterback . The 49ers notched their 12th victory of the season on Christmas eve of that season. The architecture at Century Link Field has not changed in 24 months. The 12th man was present at those games in 2011. They wore the same wigs, applied the same face paint and dyed their faux hawks the same neon blue and green they will on Sunday. The only difference is in the 11 men that take the field in those blue and green uniforms. The top defense in the NFL, a superior running game and a quarterback who almost never turns the ball over are the real reasons the Seahawks have developed into one of the leagues best teams, not whether Kansas City or Seattle hold the world’s record for collective yelling. The Seahawks won 6 games on the road this year, one less that at home. The 11 players in blue are the only thing that will matter to the 11 players in white on Sunday. Just like Gene Hackman measuring the height of the baskets in Hoosiers, the football field at Century Link in Seattle is the same as it is in San Francisco, Green Bay and Charlotte. 100 yards long with two ten yard end zones. It is 53 and a 1/3 yards wide, with two sidelines. An Arizona team that didn’t make the playoffs went up to the Northwest less than a month ago and beat the Seahawks in a game where QB Carson Palmer threw four interceptions. As much as the Seahwaks are made out to be totally invincible at home, it’s not entirely true.
On Sunday, the 49ers must put their past two games in Seattle behind them and perform up to their lofty standards. They quite simply will have to play their best game of the season. Colin Kaepernick has only thrown one interception in his last 146 attempts. The team as a whole has only four turnovers in the last eight games. They have to continue to protect the ball on Sunday. In two playoff games the 49ers have been called for seven penalties. They have to continue to limit penalties. You can’t give free yards and especially free first downs to a team as good as Seattle. The 49ers have won 13 of their last 15 games. The two losses came two months ago by a combined four points. The teams that beat them, the Panthers and the Saints, both made the playoffs and went a collective 23-9 during the regular season. They have already won two road games in these playoffs, something no 49er team has ever done. As Grantland’s Andrew Sharp put it ”The 49ers don’t have the best offense or the best defense, but no team in the NFL has a better combination of the two.” They are playing their best football of the season and are almost fully healthy coming into the NFC championship game. They will seemingly never get a better shot at traveling to Seattle and defeating their arch-nemesis.
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