Seahawks Playing 49ers For Pride, Not Playoff Position
By Corbin Smith
Less than a week after clinching a playoff berth with a 34-7 win over the Saints, the Seahawks will travel to Candlestick Park to face a familiar rival in the 49ers with the hopes of sweeping the season series.
Entering the season, many circled this date on the calendar as the game where the "west would be won," but the Seahawks have used a seven-game winning streak to create a three-game cushion between themselves and the defending NFC Champions. Even though this game doesn't hold as much importance as expected in the NFC West standings, both teams have plenty of incentive to win this game. For the Seahawks, a win would clinch a first round bye in the NFC, while a 49ers win would keep slim division title hopes alive as well as provide a much-needed win to stay in the driver's seat for a wild card.
Seattle and San Francisco have one of the nastiest rivalries in the National Football League thanks to the well-documented disdain that coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh have towards one another. Back when Carroll and Harbaugh were coaching in the Pac-10, Harbaugh infamously went for a two-point conversion to score 50 points against Carroll's USC Trojans, leading to a midfield confrontation at the end of the game. That bad blood has crossed over to the NFL, and the players on both teams have quickly grown to have similar distaste, making this a must-see matchup on Sunday.
The Seahawks dominated the first matchup between these two title contenders in Week 2 at CenturyLink Field with a 29-3 victory, but both teams have several key contributors back in the lineup for this rematch. Russell Wilson should be much better suited to handle a harsh road game than he was last time he played at Candlestick in Week 7 last year, while Colin Kaepernick won't have to worry about a noisy 12th man causing problems this time around and will benefit greatly from the return of receiver Michael Crabtree.
This game may not have as much significance as expected, but both teams still believe they have the talent to make a Super Bowl run and this game has plenty of playoff implications despite the fact Seattle has a comfortable division lead. So who leaves the field tomorrow victorious? Quarterback play will affect the outcome, but based on recent history between these teams, the team that runs the ball most effectively will have the best chance to win.
Seattle has used strong passing performances from Wilson to beat the Saints and Vikings the last two games, but Marshawn Lynch has been surprisingly quiet in recent weeks. Even though he scored three touchdowns against Minnesota, he's averaging less than three yards per carry the past two times out, and that won't cut it against a stout 49ers run defense led by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. When Aldon Smith left the lineup to go to rehab early in the season, the 49ers run defense suffered, which explains why they only rank 11th in the NFL in that category. Don't let the numbers fool you, though, as the defense has been playing much better of late with Smith back in the lineup.
Keeping that in mind, Seattle will need to do a much better job opening up running lanes for Lynch. The return of Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini has helped pass protection tremendously, but hasn't given the run game much of a boost. Inconsistent play at the guard spots could be the biggest culprit for Lynch's recent struggles, and line coach Tom Cable did some manuevering this week to help in that department. The Seahawks had been rotating James Carpenter and Paul McQuistan at the left guard spot, but Carpenter will start tomorrow and should play exclusively against the 49ers barring injury. Carpenter has been a bust for the most part since being drafted out of Alabama, but maybe he'll reach a turning point late in the season and finally emerge as a solid starter. Lynch hasn't had much luck running the ball recently, but past history shows that he will have a strong bounce-back game this weekend. He's one of the few backs who has had sustained success against the 49ers, and he rushed for 98 yards last time these two met.
As for the 49ers offense, Harbaugh's team still revolves around veteran back Frank Gore. Gore has gashed Seattle in the past, but he only rushed for 16 yards when these two teams met in Week 2. After a string of strong performances in the middle of the season, he's been slumping in the last three games, failing to reach 50 rushing yards in any of those contests. With Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati both potentially out for tomorrow's game with injuries, San Francisco faces a major challenge trying to contain Seattle's defensive front with two backups in the starting lineup and Gore could be in for another long afternoon running the football.
San Francisco's offense has had a difficult time functioning without a strong rushing attack, and Seattle will look to shut Gore down and force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. Aside from a 400 yard performance on opening day against the Packers, Kaepernick hasn't been as successful as he was last season, but his last two performances may be a sign he's ready to break out. In wins over the Rams and Redskins, he threw for 510 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, which provides hope for San Francisco moving forward. Sunday's game will show just how far he's come this season when he squares off with the top ranked pass defense in the league, and it'll be interesting to see how he approaches attacking Seattle's secondary without Walter Thurmond or Brandon Browner.
Reserves Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane played exceptionally against New Orleans, but with a short week of preparation following an emotional Monday night game, both could be vulnerable to a dropoff this week. With Crabtree and Mario Manningham now healthy alongside Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick will have all of his weapons available for this grudge match. Crabtree and Manningham both missed the game in Seattle and will force the Seahawks to be more focused on stopping the passing game than last time. Maxwell and linebacker K.J. Wright did a nice job covering Jimmy Graham last week, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn may need to handle Davis differently considering how talented the 49ers receiving core is with everyone back in the lineup.
Even with these key players back in the lineup, however, the Seahawks main priority should be keeping Gore in check. He's still the focal point of this offense, and if he's shut down, it limits what the 49ers can do offensively. Harbaugh's club loves to run play action, but that won't be effective if the run game isn't working. Look for Seattle to dare San Francisco to win this game passing the football much like they did in Week 2, and the odds of winning this game will be drastically greater if they're able to close running lanes and limit Gore on the ground.
As always the case when these teams duke it out, this should be a physical, old-school football game won in the trenches. Both teams love to run between the tackles and feature mobile, strong-armed quarterbacks capable of putting up gaudy numbers when needed. This has the look of the "Game of Week" in the NFL, even if the stakes aren't as high as anticipated, and should be a much closer game than the earlier contest.