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Burning Questions For 49ers-Seahawks Grudge Match

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The Seahawks would be wise to make better use of tight end Zach Miller against a stout 49ers defense during Sunday's NFC Championship Game. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images).
The Seahawks would be wise to make better use of tight end Zach Miller against a stout 49ers defense during Sunday's NFC Championship Game. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images).

This Sunday's NFC Championship Game couldn't possibly feature better storylines.

The San Francisco 49ers against the Seattle Seahawks features two coaches with incredible animosity toward one another. Now, they are leading their talented teams from the NFC West into the ultimate grudge match, with a Super Bowl XLVIII berth on the line. The No. 1 and No. 3 scoring defenses in the NFL will both be on display against physical, run-oriented offenses in a battle that could turn into a blood bath at CenturyLink Field.

This should be outstanding cinema for those in love with hard-nosed, old-school football. Which team will take advantage of this rare opportunity and punch a ticket for New Jersey?

Both teams are well-coached and play very similar styles, so this will clearly be a game dictated by match-ups. Seattle will enjoy playing on its home turf for the final time this season and hopes to leave town on a winning note, but the 49ers have their sights set on returning to the Big Game after falling just short against the Baltimore Ravens last February.

With no distinct advantages for either team, from a player standpoint, here's a look at four critical questions that should have the most impact on whom leaves the field victorious and whom falls just short of earning a chance to play for the coveted Lombardi Trophy.

Which quarterback has more pressure on him to win this game?

Russell Wilson hasn’t been playing near as well in the past five games as he did earlier in the season, but he’s still playing at home and has enjoyed tremendous success against the 49ers at CenturyLink. One could argue that Wilson faces more pressure because he has home-field advantage working in his favor and he’s playing for the NFC’s top seed, but stats paint a different picture.

Despite concerns over recent performance, Wilson did play well enough to win when these two teams met last month, and he’s not going to have to worry about the stadium decibel level like his opposition will. Wilson will be able to run audibles and use a hard count, if necessary, to counter an aggressive 49ers defense, while San Francisco won’t have that option thanks to the excessive crowd noise. Wilson should remain poised even with an NFC title on the line, thanks to playing on his own turf and being able to lean on Marshawn Lynch.

Colin Kaepernick has gradually improved with the return of Michael Crabtree and remains a dangerous threat as a runner, but two of his worst games came in Seattle and he’ll need to prove he can deliver in a hostile environment. Kaepernick has thrown four interceptions in two career games at the Link, and he’s struggled with delay-of-game penalties both times, forcing the 49ers to burn timeouts. With Frank Gore running the ball, San Francisco doesn’t need him to throw for 300 yards to win this game, but he can’t get flustered and turn the football over like he has the past two times he played in Seattle.

Seattle's famed "12th Man" has truly had Kaepernick's number during his young NFL career, and most of the pressure will be on him to carry his team to a second straight Super Bowl. Wilson has done a great job during his first two years of staying calm and battling through rough patches, but Kaepernick hasn’t been nearly as effective when it comes to overcoming adversity. If he gets off to a shaky start, will he wilt under the pressure? Or will he be able to shake it off?

How much of an impact will the running game have on the final outcome?

Numbers don’t lie, especially when looking at how run-heavy these teams have been this season. Both Seattle and San Francisco are in the top five in the league for total rushing yards behind Lynch and Gore, but the passing attacks rank near the bottom in terms of yardage per game. The Seahawks finished the 2013 season with the 26th-ranked passing offense, while the 49ers were even less reliant on the pass and ranked 30th. These teams have been built in a similar fashion, around physical ground games and elite defenses, and it would be a stunner if either abandoned that strategy in a game of this magnitude.

As this year’s playoffs have shown, a strong running game can offset other issues. The Patriots have been battling the injury bug on both sides of the ball, but strong performances on the ground have allowed them to return to yet another AFC Championship Game. Neither one of these teams will scare you passing the football, but both are dangerous when Lynch and Gore become facotrs. Their mere presence as runners opens up the play-action passing game. Both players are downhill runners who seek out contact and fit in perfectly with each team’s respective offensive schemes.

Lynch’s three-touchdown performance in Week 2 had a major impact on Seattle’s ability to pull away in the second half of that contest as the Seahawks built an insurmountable 29-3 lead. Last month, Gore’s 51-yard run late in the fourth quarter of the rematch at Candlestick ended up vaulting the 49ers to a late victory, so the value of both runners cannot be understated.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh have assembled their respective offenses around blue-collar backs, and both will remain the primary weapon in this one. Barring injury, expect a heavy dose of Gore and Lynch from the opening kickoff — and don’t be surprised if reserves like Kendall Hunter and Robert Turbin make an impact as well.

Total rushing yards might not have a direct correlation to which team wins this game, but effectiveness on the ground certainly will. Wilson and Kaepernick excel as play-action passers, and the team able to execute most efficiently in the run game will have a better chance to exploit the defense through the air. In a game featuring two suffocating defenses, one big play off of a play fake could be the difference between heading to New Jersey and heading home for the offseason.

Which match-ups should Seattle be wary of entering this game?

The Seahawks have the most depth in all of football — and it’s not even close. Through strong drafting and thrifty spending in free agency, the team has crafted a roster that can handle injuries and suspensions. The emergence of Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane in the secondary, as replacements for Brandon Browner, show how well Carroll and GM John Schneider have fared in preparing reserves to step in and play at a high level. More importantly, Seattle has similar depth across the board.

If Seattle has one major weakness that could be exposed this weekend, it’s the offensive line. Left tackle Russell Okung hasn’t looked the same since re-injuring his toe several games ago, and has had trouble blocking athletic pass-rushers like Robert Quinn. Okung will have the responsibility of keeping star linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman away from Wilson, and that could be problematic. When these teams met in Week 14, Wilson took hard hits both inside the pocket and as a runner. The 49ers will surely be aiming to do the same this Sunday.

The Seahawks will also be starting seventh-round draft choice Michael Bowie at left guard, alongside Okung, for the second straight week. Carroll made the surprising decision to move Bowie from tackle to guard and installed him as a starter prior to last week’s game against the Saints. Poor play by Paul McQuistan and James Carpenter played a key role in the decision, but Carroll also said that the rookie was simply playing too well to keep out of the lineup.

“We had no idea he’d come this far, this fast, and we’re thrilled about it,” Carroll said. "He’s a good, smart kid ... amazing for a young guy.”

This week, Bowie will face a major challenge blocking standout defensive linemen Justin Smith and Glenn Dorsey. Even as he enters the twilight of his outstanding career, Smith still possesses the size, speed, and toughness to disrupt game plans, and this will be the toughest test Bowie has faced in his young career.

He did a solid job handling the Saints' defensive line a week ago, but the 49ers play at another level and it’ll be interesting to see how the young guard handles himself in the trenches. If he’s able to hold his own, that would be a positive development for Seattle’s offense both in this game and potentially the next several seasons.

Where can Seattle exploit San Francisco offensively?

Analysts have been critical of Seattle’s offense over the past month, and rightfully so. Wilson is averaging just barely more than 150 passing yards per game since throwing for 310 against the Saints in Week 13, and the run game had been struggling until Lynch’s 140-yard game last weekend. Even if Percy Harvin is cleared to play after suffering a concussion in the Divisional Round, Seattle should consider using more two tight-end formations against San Francisco, especially with 49ers corner Carlos Rogers potentially playing with a hamstring injury.

Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and Harvin all have the ability to create big plays on the outside, but the Seahawks’ passing game is at its best when Zach Miller and Luke Willson are heavily involved as receiving options. Miller hasn’t been used much as a receiver during the team’s recent offensive swoon after being one of Wilson’s top targets against the Vikings and Saints. He’s not overly athletic, but Seattle would be wise to get him more involved due to his size and great hands.

Aside from Miller, Willson has emerged as a big-play threat in the latter stages of the season. He had his best game against the 49ers in Week 14 when he hauled in three receptions for 70 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown catch. The fifth-round pick didn’t produce much during the opening half of the season, but he earned more playing time as the year progressed and broke out against San Francisco. Like Miller, he hasn’t been used much as a receiver in the past few games, but an ankle injury may have limited him against New Orleans a week ago.

Statistically speaking, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell would be wise to use multiple tight-end packages more frequently against San Francisco based on Wilson’s success as a passer in similar situations this year. With two tight ends on the field, Wilson completed 53-of-80 passes for 697 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions for a 122.8 QB rating.

Miller can be utilized as a solid possession receiver and Willson can generate big plays with his athleticism down the field, opening up options for players like Tate and Baldwin on the outside. Against a suspect 49ers secondary, this approach could create major advantages for the Seahawks offensively, if Bevell chooses to be more aggressive with his play-calling and allows his tight ends to be playmakers.