One of the NFL’s best rivalries going right now will take center stage this afternoon when the Seattle Seahawks take on the San Francisco 49ers at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks (11-1) have already clinched a playoff spot and can sew up the NFC West title and a first-round bye with a win. Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers (8-4) currently possess the NFC’s final Wild Card spot, but they would like to improve their postseason chances with a victory at home and snap a two-game losing streak to their division rivals in the process.
3 Things to Watch
Seahawks Flying High
Winners of seven in a row after a dominating, 34-7 victory over New Orleans on Monday night, Seattle appears to come into this one with all of the momentum. The Seahawks haven’t lost since a 34-28 defeat at Indianapolis back on Oct. 6 and have outscored the opposition by nearly 100 points (203-105) during their winning streak. In their last three games alone, the offense has averaged 414 yards and has not turned the ball over once. The No. 1 defense in the NFL, the Seahawks have held their last three opponents – Falcons, Vikings and Saints – to an average of 250 yards per game and have forced six turnovers. New Orleans, one of the top offenses in the league, managed a season-low 188 yards of offense and one lone touchdown against the Seahawks’ defense on Monday night. Seattle also has been successful against San Francisco lately, winning the last two games against the 49ers by a combined score of 71-16. In these contests, the Seahawks outgained the 49ers 348-182 on the ground and won the turnover battle 7-2. Seattle seems to be peaking at just the right time, which means San Francisco has its work cut out for it this afternoon.
Location, Location, Location
As well as Seattle is playing right now, San Francisco does have one thing in its favor – the 49ers are the home team. The Seahawks enjoy one of the greatest home-field advantages in the NFL at CenturyLink Field, which is manifested by the deafening support of their fans, collectively known as the “12th Man.” These fans have been so loud as to register on the Richter scale, and it’s apparent the home team feeds off of this energy, especially the defense. At home, the Seahawks are giving up 261.5 yards per game and just 14 points per game. On the road, those numbers grow to 316.5 and 17. At a league-best 11-1, it’s not like Seattle has played poorly on the road this season. In fact, the Seahawks could set a single-season franchise record with their sixth road win this afternoon. To do that, however, they will have to do something they haven’t done since 2008 – win in San Francisco. The Seahawks have won the last two meetings against the 49ers, but both of those games were in Seattle. San Francisco has won the past four games at Candlestick Park, including last season’s 13-6 victory in Week 7. Last year’s Seahawks team went 3-5 during the regular season on the road, won at Washington in the NFC Wild Card game before losing in Atlanta in the Divisional Round. This year’s Seahawks squad is 5-1 on the road and would be one step closer to securing home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a victory this afternoon. San Francisco made it to the Super Bowl last season by beating the Falcons on the road in the NFC title game. Can the Seahawks show the defending NFC Champions that they are a team to be feared, no matter where the game is played?
Putting the “O” in San Francisco
For the season, the 49ers are 28th in the NFL in total offense at 311 yards per game. The rushing attack is seventh at 130.8 yards per contest, but the passing game lags well behind. Only the Jets, who are starting a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith, have thrown for fewer yards this season than the 49ers (180.3 ypg). In San Francisco’s eight wins, the 49ers are averaging 365.5 yards and 32.3 points per game. In their four losses, including a 29-3 defeat to the Seahawks back in Week 2, those numbers plummet to 202 yards and just 9.8 points per game. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s play has been inconsistent to say the least this season, and he’s fared even worse against Seattle in his career. In two games against the Seahawks, Kaepernick has accounted for one touchdown pass and five (4 INTs, fumble) total turnovers, as the 49ers have been outscored 71-16 in those contests. Earlier this season, Kaepernick had arguably the worst game of his young career up in Seattle. In the Week 2 loss, Kaepernick completed just 13 of 28 passes for 127 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. He did rush for a season-high 87 yards, but he lost a fumble and also was sacked three times, as the 49ers finished with 207 yards of offense. While Kaepernick certainly needs to play better, the San Francisco offense really revolves around running the ball. After starting the season with nine straight performances of at least 90 yards rushing, the 49ers have averaged just 80 yards on the ground over their last three games. If there’s been any weak spot in Seattle’s defense this season, it’s been against the run. The Seahawks are 13th in the league in rushing defense at 107.2 yards per game, but have given up 150 or more to three different teams (Houston, St. Louis and Tampa Bay). Running back Frank Gore has had success in his career against Seattle, posting a 5.3 yards per carry average in 15 games, but he gained just 16 yards rushing against the Seahawks earlier this season and hasn’t gone over 82 yards on the ground since Week 6. Whether it’s Kaepernick or Gore or someone else, San Francisco needs to find some offense this afternoon if the 49ers have any hope of ending Seattle’s seven-game winning streak.
Seattle Key Player: Russell Wilson, QB
The Seahawks have the best record in the NFL at 11-1 and the league’s No. 1 defense. They also have a pretty good quarterback in Wilson, who has gone from an afterthought as a third-round draft pick in 2012 to a legitimate MVP candidate this season. All Wilson did as a rookie was win the starting job in the preseason and then go on to post a 26:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio while completing 64.1 percent of his passes and help lead the Seahawks to the playoffs with an 11-5 record. This season Wilson has been even better. His completion percentage is up (64.9), he’s on pace to post a 29:8 TD:INT ratio and he’s averaging 5.7 yards per carry. With four games left, Wilson has already won 22 games and has 48 touchdown passes in his first two seasons. The only quarterbacks with more touchdown passes in their first two campaigns are Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52). While Wilson may have a chance of catching Manning, what is first and foremost on his mind is securing the NFC West title and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win over San Francisco. Wilson is 2-1 against his division rivals, with both victories coming at home. In fact his only game at Candlestick Park, a 13-6 defeat in Week 7 last season, was the worst performance of his young career. In that game, Wilson completed just 9-of-23 passes for 122 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. He has been solid on the road this season (10:2 TD:INT ratio in six games), but has struggled away from home against some of the better passing defenses. A strong performance by Wilson at Candlestick Park this afternoon may not only result in a division title and first-round bye in the playoffs, it could go a long ways towards bolstering his MVP candidacy.
San Francisco Key Player: Michael Crabtree, WR
The 49ers’ leading receiver last season, Crabtree has played in a grand total of one game in 2013. He missed the first 11 after tearing his Achilles tendon in late March. Colin Kaepernick looked Crabtree’s way early and often after he became the starter midway through last season, as the duo become one of the most productive quarterback-wide receiver combinations in the NFL. In the 10 starts Kaepernick made in 2012, including playoffs, Crabtree recorded 61 receptions for 880 yards (14.4 ypr) and eight touchdowns. It’s no stretch to say that Kaepernick has missed his favorite target, as he’s thrown for just 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions this season. In his first game back, Crabtree caught two passes for 68 yards, but the 275 yards passing by Kaepernick were the most since 412 against Green Bay all the back in Week 1. While it’s expected that Crabtree will be rusty as he works his way back, it’s not out of the question for him to have an impact this afternoon. Especially considering Seattle’s vaunted “Legion of Boom” secondary will most likely be without heavy-hitting cornerback Brandon Browner, who is dealing with a groin injury.
Seattle is on a roll right now. The Seahawks have won seven in a row, have the NFL’s No. 1 defense and a legitimate MVP candidate in quarterback Russell Wilson. While they have been pretty much unbeatable at home under Pete Carroll, this year’s Seahawks team has played very well away from home too, posting a 5-1 record.
San Francisco has a tentative grasp on the final Wild Card berth in the NFL, but the 49ers know they need to keep winning if they want to have a shot at getting back to the Super Bowl. The offense continues to be a mystery, as Colin Kaepernick hasn’t thrown for more than 300 yards in a game since the season opener.
These two teams clearly don’t like each other, so don’t be surprised if things get heated this afternoon at Candlestick Park. The last time they played, back in Week 2, they combined for 22 penalties for 205 yards. In fact, whichever team does a better job of controlling its emotions, if you will, will probably be better positioned to win.
That said, Seattle is peaking at the right time and appears to be a team on a mission. Wilson is playing exceptional football right now, while Kaepernick has yet to find his stride. In the end, the Seahawks make enough plays early on offense and late on defense to earn the season sweep of the 49ers, along with the NFC West division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Seattle 24, San Francisco 20