NFC Championship Game Preview and Prediction: San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks

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Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers are a win away from earning a repeat trip to the Super Bowl

NFC Championship Game Preview and Prediction: San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks

Division archrivals are set to face off for the first time ever in the playoffs when the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks meet in the NFC Championship Game at 6:30 p.m. ET on FOX. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers (14-4) defeated division winners Green Bay and Carolina on the road to earn a trip to their third straight conference title game. All that’s standing in their way of a repeat trip to the Super Bowl are Pete Carroll and the Seahawks (14-3), who won the NFC West and claimed the No. 1 seed behind the NFL’s No. 1 defense and a punishing running game.

Even though San Francisco was a wild card team, this is a matchup of teams that finished with the best records in the NFC (Carolina and San Francisco both went 12-4) during the regular season. The 49ers and Seahawks split their two earlier meetings, with the home team holding serve on their field.

This will be the first-ever playoff game between these two teams, who have split their 30 regular-season matchups. San Francisco and Seattle have both been in the NFC West since the 2002 season.

4 Things to Watch

Recap of Rounds 1 and 2
San Francisco and Seattle split their regular-season meetings, with the home team winning on their respective field. Although the Seahawks outscored the 49ers 46-22, a closer look at the statistics paints a different picture. Just 29 yards separated the two teams in terms of total offense (554 for Seattle, 525 for San Francisco) in the two games, with the discrepancy in first downs (32 to 31), rushing yards (258 to 263), total drives (24 to 23) and total plays (120 to 115), as well as sacks (6 to 7) being even smaller. Both offenses struggled on third down (10 of 28, 35.7 percent for Seattle; 8 of 25, 32 percent for San Francisco) and while Seattle won the time of possession battle (64:15 to 55:45), both teams averaged 4.6 yards per play. If there was one area that wasn’t particularly close, it was turnovers. The Seahawks forced seven takeaways, while the 49ers had just two. In fact, turnovers played a huge part in Seattle’s dominating 29-3 win back in Week 2, as San Francisco’s offense was short-circuited by five costly miscues, four of them by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The first points of this game came via a safety by the Seahawks, who set the tone early and ran over the 49ers (172 yards rushing) in the win. San Francisco returned the favor in Week 14, outgaining Seattle 163 to 86 on the ground and riding Phil Dawson’s leg (four field goals, long of 52 yards) to victory. This one was much more of a back-and-forth affair, as the teams traded scoring drives in the second quarter, which ended with the 49ers holding a slim, two-point (16-14) lead. The defenses took over from there as the only points scored over the final 30 minutes were via field goals. Dawson’s 22-yarder with 26 seconds left put San Francisco on top for good, 19-17. Neither Kaepernick nor Wilson played all that well in either game, which is not surprising considering the Seahawks finished the regular season first in the league in total defense with the 49ers coming in at No. 5. Will the rubber match follow the same script as the first two or will tonight’s game feature a few more offensive fireworks?

71-16
The 49ers are the hottest team in the NFL right now, winners of eight in a row overall, five of those coming on the road. Over its last two seasons, San Francisco is 12-5 on the road, including playoff games. Unfortunately, none of these wins have come in Seattle, as the 49ers have lost their last two trips to the Pacific Northwest by a combined score of 71-16. The Seahawks won 42-13 in Week 16 of last season and 29-3 back on Sept. 15. Some common themes in these games are running the ball, turnovers and poor quarterback play by Colin Kaepernick. Seattle has outgained San Francisco 248 to 182 on the ground over the last two games at CenturyLink Field. Marshawn Lynch has outrushed the 49ers by himself, picking up 209 yards on 54 carries (3.9 ypc), along with three touchdowns. This postseason, San Francisco has given up a total of 217 yards rushing in two games, and this defense knows how important Seattle’s ground game is to its offense. The 49ers also need to do a better job protecting the football, as they have coughed it up seven times in their last two trips to Seattle, compared to just two miscues for the home team. Kaepernick is responsible for five of these (four INTs, fumble), which pretty much sums up how poorly he has played at CenturyLink Field. In two games in Seattle, Kaepernick has completed exactly half of his passes (32 of 64) for 371 yards, one touchdown and four picks. He has been his team’s leading rusher in each of these contests, but his totals of 16 carries for 118 yards (7.4 ypc) only serve to reinforce the discrepancy between the two offenses in this area. The 49ers enter this game with plenty of momentum, but the Seahawks have thoroughly dominated their divisional foe at home recently. Which trend will continue tonight?

Offensive Momentum
Neither San Francisco nor Seattle is an offensive juggernaut, coming in at 24th and 17th, respectively, in total yards per game in the regular season. However, the 49ers appear to have a little more momentum on that side, as their offense has shown better results recently. During their eight-game winning streak, which includes a Week 14 home win against Seattle and two postseason contests, the 49ers have averaged 348.3 yards per game. Contrast that to the Seahawks, who have averaged 246 yards of offense over their last three home games, including last week’s win against the Saints. San Francisco’s offense has been re-energized since the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree from a torn Achilles tendon. In seven games, including the first two playoff wins, Crabtree has caught 30 passes for 435 yards (14.5 ypr) and a touchdown. Now while those numbers may not seem huge, Crabtree is Colin Kaepernick’s most trusted target, which has helped the quarterback’s confidence in the pocket, and his presence means that defenses can’t solely focus on fellow wideout Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Russell Wilson doesn’t have the weapons in the passing game that Kaepernick does, especially considering wide receiver Percy Harvin played in just one game in the regular season after undergoing offseason hip surgery. He returned last week against New Orleans, but suffered a concussion early in the game and has already been ruled out for tonight's contest. That leaves fellow wideouts Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin as Wilson’s top two targets. The concern there is that their combined production (114 rec., 1,676 yds., 10 TDs) in the regular season was similar to the numbers put up by Boldin and Crabtree (104 rec., 1,463 yds., 8 TDs), even though Crabtree played in just five games. At tight end, there’s no comparison between Davis (52-850-13) and the Seahawks’ committee of Zach Miller, Luke Wilson and Kellen Davis, who have combined for 56 receptions for 691 yards and seven scores. Offensively speaking, the numbers have been very similar between these two teams over their first two meetings. However, San Francisco’s unit appears to be peaking at just the right time, while Seattle’s is in the midst of a mini-slump of sorts. With the defenses getting most of the attention, the opportunity is there for either offense to make its own statement or come up short at the absolute worst time possible.

Gene Steratore
An NFL official since 2003 and a referee since ’06, the 50-year-old Steratore will head up the officiating crew for the NFC Championship Game. Considering the physicality of these two teams and their utter dislike of one another, how much on-air time Steratore gets, particularly after a yellow hanky has been thrown, could be a key factor in this game. In the first two meetings, San Francisco and Seattle had a total of 38 penalties for 360 yards called on them. Each team was responsible for 19 penalties with the flags thrown on the 49ers accounting for more than half (191) of the yardage. Nine of the 63 total first downs gained by both teams in these two games were gained via penalty. As it relates to Steratore, he and his crew finished in the middle of the pack in terms of total penalties called (210) during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. For comparison, Jeff Triplette’s crew led the way with 244. In the regular season, the Seahawks led the league in total penalties (128) with the 49ers coming in at 12th with 103. Last week, San Francisco benefited from a few personal foul calls against Carolina, while Seattle was flagged just six times compared to New Orleans’ eight. There’s no question that this game will feature some dirty laundry. But how many flags are thrown and which team benefits and/or is hurt most by these infractions is certainly something worth keeping an eye on.

Key Positional Matchup: QB Colin Kaepernick vs. QB Russell Wilson
In a game that features two of the top five defenses during the regular season, it sort of goes without saying that quarterback play will be key. However, that is especially the case for this game considering one quarterback has struggled mightily in this venue while the other has not been at his best recently. Kaepernick is 0-2 at CenturyLink Field with both games ranking among the worst performances in his young career. He has completed just half of his passes with more turnovers (five) than total touchdowns (one). Wilson (right) has posted a 5:2 TD:INT ratio in these two games, but his completion rate (57.5) and yardage total (313) leave something to be desired. With Wilson, however, the concern is more related to how he has performed over the past month. Since Week 14, the Seahawks are averaging just 144.2 yards passing per game. That’s a big reason why they have scored just 20 points per contest during this stretch of five games and have gone a mediocre 3-2. Third down in particular has been an issue for Wilson. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Wilson has posted a 70.1 passer rating and just one first down on three rushes on third down over his last five games. In comparison, Kaepernick has produced a 101.6 passer rating along with six first downs on 11 rushes during the same span. Wilson is 16-1 in his career at home, including last week’s win over New Orleans. Kaepernick is 3-0 in his career in road postseason games. As the saying goes, something’s gotta give.

Final Analysis

Longtime division rivals who absolutely despise each other get together for the first time in the playoffs with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line? It doesn’t get much better than this. For one, the rivalry goes beyond the players, as both coaches have established history with each other that goes back to their time matching wits in the Pac-12.

In nine career matchups, Jim Harbaugh is 6-3 against Pete Carroll, including a 4-2 mark in their San Francisco vs. Seattle clashes. Harbaugh also has enjoyed more success than Carroll, as this is his third straight NFC Championship Game appearance in as many seasons while Carroll is in his first in four campaigns with the Seahawks. Familiarity certainly hasn’t resulted in friendship either, as both have taken their share of veiled (and some not-so-veiled) shots at the other’s team.

So it’s only fitting that these two franchises will “settle” things on the field, as they spilt their regular-season meetings. Seattle has been near unbeatable at home this season and has thoroughly dominated San Francisco in its last two trips to CenturyLink Field. This 49ers team, however, is battle-tested and has won its last three true road playoff games.

So what should one expect in this clash of NFC titans? Once again, the defenses will more than likely dictate the proceedings, but this is not the same 49ers offense that the Seahawks manhandled back in Week 2. Yards and points will be tough to come by for either unit, but in the end I think Colin Kaepernick is a little more productive than Russell Wilson because he has better weapons in the passing game.

Marshawn Lynch does his best to carry Seattle to the Super Bowl, but Wilson’s late-season struggles finally catch up to him and the offense. Harbaugh’s playoff-savvy squad controls the second half, propelling the 49ers back to the Super Bowl.

San Francisco 20, Seattle 17

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