The Seahawks and the 49ers have elbowed their way to the top as the league's most entertaining and consequential rivalry. It's bound to draw attention when two Super Bowl contenders play in the same division, but these two would generate chatter if they played in the California Penal League.
Each boasts a rock-ribbed defense capable of dismantling an offense. The 49ers have more of a 'totally impossible to run on' flavor while the Seahawks go more of the 'death to flying things' route, but nothing comes easy against either unit. On the other side of the ball, their mastery of the read option in 2012 turned their respective offenses into juggernauts that embarrassed 40-year veteran coaches and pounded opponents into submission.
So with all those strengths and storylines on the table, let's talk ... passing games?
Yup, passing games.
If Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson were one-trick ground-game ponies -- even though it's a really, really good trick -- their offenses would be fairly easy to solve. But both of these Camp Winnipesaukee alums show tremendous natural ability and preternatural poise as passers. Both were among the league leaders in vertical passing productivity last season despite lacking a Packers, Saints or Falcons-caliber cast of aerial weapons. That deep-ball ability forced defenses to account for every vertical and horizontal inch of the field, often for around five seconds as both passers bought time with their legs. "Dual-threat QB" used to be NFL-speak for "scrambles a lot, chucks it deep and prays," but Kaepernick and Wilson headline the new era of read option and spread offense-trained dual-threat QBs.
Now both threats can kill you.
To help illustrate the point that both players' aerial numbers were legit last season, they kicked off 2013 by combining for 732 passing yards and four TD passes in Week 1. A closer look at how each team got after their opponents in the air should yield some clues about what we'll see in this week's Sunday Night Football showdown.
The 49ers - Keeping it Clean
Two things stood out in the 49ers' 400-yard air assault against the Packers last week (the terror inspired by a fully-weaponized Vernon Davis in the downfield passing game is a third thing, but we'll get to that in a minute).
The first thing was the incredibly clean pocket that Colin Kaepernick operated from for much of the game and the second was the length San Francisco went to in order to provide Anquan Boldin with clean releases off the line of scrimmage.
First things first: Kaepernick enjoyed tremendous protection against a Green Bay D that has made a significant effort to beef up its pass rush. Clay Matthews bagged him once but, per Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick only faced pressure on 24.4 percent of his dropbacks. Only Alex Smith and Andy Dalton faced less heat, and neither came close to parlaying that time into a downfield showcase the way Kaepernick did.
The San Francisco offensive line is, without a doubt, one of the best in the game -- many of the league's offensive linemen would pass up a prime rib buffet to play in an attack with a tremendously creative ground game and a QB who you can never truly pin your ears back to rush.
The second part of the 49ers' big day was their creativity in getting Boldin clean releases and room to roam. Many preseason prognosticators (including yours truly) predicted a challenging year for Boldin, thinking that his lack of speed would make it tough for him to deal with press coverage and other defensive ministrations despite his renowned physicality.
If Week 1 gave us anything to go on, however, the 49ers will use pawns like Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore (no offense, guys) to set their newest chess piece up for success.
Facing a third-and-9 early in the third quarter, the 49ers lined Boldin up off the line. He was bunched with another receiver as well as Vernon Davis, who was set up more or less as an H-back on the right side of the offensive front.
As his compadres head right, Boldin cuts upfield between them to get a free release off the line. He would work his way downfield and snag a Kaepernick bullet between two defenders for a 22-yard gain.
Later in the drive, with San Francisco now in the red zone, Boldin lined up on the inside of a trips look to the field side.
Inside receiver breaking out underneath two verticals is a trips look staple, and that's exactly what transpired as Boldin took advantage of the clear-out to avoid a solid jam from Packers' safety Jerron McMillian.
Boldin broke past McMillian's outside leverage and got to the 2-yard line before being dragged down, setting up an easy play-action flip to Vernon Davis for the touchdown.
Oh, what's that about Davis?
Davis was a monster last week, and could be in line for an off-the-charts season. He got loose in the seam multiple times against the Packers, and on most plays he's just a physical mismatch for whoever is trying to hold him. His most impressive play of the day, however, was as much about savvy as his size and speed.
Late in the first quarter, the veteran tight end was split out in a twins set and took off up the seam at the snap. As he approached the end zone, he gave a sweet little hip fake right out of the Marvin Harrison Deceptively Simple But Really Impressive At Full Speed Scrapbook. It froze Packers' safety M.D. Jennings on the spot and Davis had an easy break to the corner to haul in a 37-yard TD.
San Francisco had a fairly pedestrian day on the ground, running into strong performances by the Green Bay defensive line (it's a contract year -- B.J. Raji cares again!) and scarcely using the read option. Nevertheless, Kaepernick and his two primary receiving weapons were able to eviscerate a depleted but still-capable Packers secondary.
Now, how about the Seahawks?
The Seahawks - Hustle and Muscle
Like Kaepernick, Wilson enjoyed tremendous success with the deep ball in his first season as a starter. Wilson was fifth among all QBs who threw at least 40 vertical passes with an impressive 48.4 percent accuracy rate, racking up 14.8 yards per attempt on vertical throws (Kaepernick only threw 33 deep balls last season, but had a 60 percent accuracy rate with an insane 18.0 yards per vertical attempt). Both quarterbacks are capable of operating from the pocket or on the move, but Wilson's feet played a big role in his passing success against the Panthers last week.
Whether scrambling from pressure (of which there was quite a bit from Carolina's impressive front four) or operating on designed rollouts, Wilson made a number of accurate throws on the move to Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and tight end Zach Miller. The threat of Wilson's legs -- and the boost they provide to the Seahawks' ground attack -- also helped to set up the game's biggest play.
Facing second-and-10 in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks aligned in a pistol set and spread the field with three wide receivers. Despite the unfavorable down and distance and Seattle's limited success on the ground to this point (Wilson and Marshawn Lynch would combine for a mere 50 yards on the day), Carolina respected the potential of the run game enough to make sure they had a seven-on-six advantage in the box by playing with a single high safety.
After the snap, it's a play fake from Wilson. Based on the reactions of the DBs, Carolina appears to be playing Man-Free or Cover One -- each of the defensive backs has their receiver in man coverage, with the knowledge that there's a single safety back who can help them deep and inside. The safery is playing inside for the moment -- he's not biting up on play action from 20 yards deep, but it's holding him in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse (circled) is breaking up the right sideline.
In a Cover One, the corners know that their help is inside and should try like hell to discourage an outside release. The Panthers' Josh Thomas tries to do the right thing here, but Kearse's wide alignment kept Thomas from setting up on his outside shoulder and Kearse manages to power through Thomas' jam.
Kearse gets a free enough release and it takes Thomas long enough to turn and chase that the Seahawks receiver gets a good step on him up the sideline. Safety Charles Godfrey has broken from the middle of the field and is flying in:
... but not in time to keep a perfectly thrown ball from Wilson from finding the target.
The Seahawks and 49ers are set for a Sunday night classic showdown in what could be a decade-long run of classic showdowns. Hard-nosed run game meets hard-nosed run defense will be a staple for each side, but how each team counters the other's passing attack will likely determine the outcome.
Seattle defensive backs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are devastating press-cover corners and a wideout with Boldin's limited speed would normally have a tough time working free against either. With the 49ers scheming to get him easier releases, however, Seattle will need to get creative in order to keep Boldin from going where he wants to over the middle. The league's best safety tandem in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas will play a role, but they'll also have their hands full dealing with Vernon Davis. A secret key to the game could be second-year linebacker Bobby Wagner -- he'll likely spend time chasing Davis, slamming into Frank Gore, walling off inside breaks from Boldin and trying to keep tabs on Kaepernick. He and the rest of Seattle's front seven will need to play gap-sound against the 49ers run game while also generating more pocket pressure than Green Bay managed.
When Seattle has the ball, the 49ers' paramount concern should be keeping Wilson in the pocket. San Francisco's secondary -- featuring an aging Carlos Rogers and a wet-behind-the-ears Eric Reid at safety -- likely won't hold up if Wilson can continually buy himself time to throw. Seattle may not be able to pull off sideline acrobatics like Jordy Nelson managed against Niners, but Golden Tate and Sidney Rice are more than capable of dazzling toe-tap grabs.
The talent and the tactics on display should make this the headliner of the weekend. Both QBs are weekly must-see TV, and Davis lined up wide against Browner might be the coolest physical matchup we witness all season. The Niners may be running a little hotter out of the gate, but the friendly (read: absolutely deafening) setting of Qwest Field should cool them off just enough in this one.
The Score: Seattle 24, San Francisco 21
The Undercard - Manning Bowl III
After David Wilson's Week 1 fumble against the Cowboys in 2012, Tom Coughlin excoriated and parked him at the end of the bench until the leaves turned brown and the coach's face turned its customary late-season shade of red.
After Wilson's PAIR of costly giveaways against the Cowboys on Sunday, Coughlin adopted a more patient and paternal stance. Has he started to mellow in his old age and began to realize that young players sometimes need positive affirmation rather than the lash of the whip? No -- Coughlin had Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown to turn to last season, whereas this year he's looking at a gimpy Da'Rel Scott and the Boris Karloff-like Brandon Jacobs. Necessity is the mother of invention, and it can occasionally motivate feigned compassion as well.
Manning the Younger has faced a ton of pressure over the last few seasons as the Giants' offensive line has devolved into one of the league's secretly suck-tastic units in pass protection. Eli avoided it like a magician in 2011, but was mortal in 2012. His pocket evasions against Dallas last Sunday night were more the "magician" variety. With three strong options at wideout, he'll put up some big yardage numbers against Denver.
Eli will need to, too, because Manning the Elder damn near broke the scoreboard last week. The Ravens had no answer and -- as evinced by their frequent failure to put slot coverage stud Lardarius Webb on Wes Welker -- they barely understood the questions. The Giants certainly don't have a slot corner who can hang and, if Prince Amukamara's concussion keeps him sidelined, they are facing real trouble on the perimeter as well. Avuncular TV Commercial Peyton Manning would tousle Eric Decker's hair and throw a few extra balls his way to help him forget his derptastic Week 1, but Cold-Hearted Assassin Peyton Manning will just deal to whoever is open while taking Eli's Oreos and drinking his milkshake.
The Score: Denver 34, New York Giants 27
The Best of the Rest
Redskins at Packers
Despite featuring two of the league's brightest stars at QB, the Packers and Redskins enter this contest without a win. Aaron Rodgers was in mid-season form against a formidable 49ers bunch, firing jaw-dropping sideline shots while running for his life and enjoying a festival of third-and-8s thanks to his snakebitten O-line. RGIII was still in offseason form for much of his team's opener against the Eagles, looking slow and hesitant on his reconstructed knee and appearing unwilling to step into a throw for most of the first half. Griffin rallied for an impressive second half passing performance, but that knee just didn't look there yet.
Both teams' defenses struggled, however, allowing a combined 77 points last week. Green Bay keenly felt the loss of slot corner Casey Hayward and safety Morgan Burnett as they were tormented by Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Washington was almost routed by the Eagles' relentless pace and LeSean McCoy's all-around shadiness before rallying in the second half for a respectable final tally.
Both of these squads are dangerous and both are still strong bets to make noise in the postseason. But a week after facing a fully functional dual-threat QB, the Packers' D should do enough against a semi-functional one to pull out a victory.
The Score: Green Bay 31, Washington 23
The Rest of the Rest
(A lot of these this week -- the league office didn't exactly knock themselves out putting together a compelling Week 2 slate)
Cowboys at Chiefs
The Chiefs spent last Sunday casually leaning on Jacksonville, arm extended and palm against the Jags' collective forehead as they futilely flailed their stubby little arms before getting pushed to the ground.
Predictably, a wedgie followed.
The Cowboys won't be so easy to bully in Arrowhead, even with a dinged-up Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. The way to beat this Cowboys' D is burning them deep, and Alex Smith will check himself down until he wrecks himself down against Sean Lee and Bruce Carter.
The Score: Dallas 27, Kansas City 17
Christian Ponder didn't have time to ponder much of anything in the pocket against Detroit (I promise that's the last time I'll use that) as he was pressured on fully half of his dropbacks. Despite a lackluster day getting after the Bengals' Andy Dalton, Chicago's defensive front should generate plenty of heat this week. Like the Predator in a South American jungle, the Ponder Flutterball comes out when it gets hot. Matt Forte should also pick up where Reggie Bush left off as a running/receiving threat while Alshon Jeffery and Marty B will capitalize if the Vikes use the same "throw the kitchen sink at him" coverage on Brandon Marshall that they employed for Calvin Johnson.
The Score: Chicago 24, Minnesota 17
Rams at Falcons
Week 1 delivered some surprises (particularly for the Know the Score wagering card ... sigh). One of the biggest was that Falcons-Saints was a lower-scoring affair than Rams-Cardinals. For the Falcons' part, they enjoyed impressive debuts from rookie corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford while feeling the effects of a hobbled Roddy White on offense. The Rams had Sam Bradford play well and tight end Jared Cook go off, but their reputed strong pass rush often went for naught as the normally reliable Cortland Finnegan got torched by Larry Fitzgerald and the Cards' pass game. Finnegan won't have an easier time trying to corral Julio Jones so Matt Ryan should do enough to pull out the win at home. Ryan will have to do quite a bit, though, since there are decent odds of the Rams' Michael Brockers bottling up Steven Jackson with the most violent aggression.
The Score: Atlanta 21, St. Louis 17
Saints at Buccaneers
Drew Brees, Sean Payton and the rest of the band are driving the Bluesmobile down to Tampa to take on a Bucs squad that has to be reeling from its bizarre, come-from-ahead debacle of a loss to the Jets. The keys for the Bucs:
4) Doug Martin feasts on an under-manned Saints front and keeps the game out of Josh Freeman's hands
The keys for the Saints:
1) Basically the opposite of 1 through 4 above, though I'm sure they'd be happy to do without the Sproles super-kick -- he is a little guy, after all.
2) Get out of town without contracting staph or catching something in one of Tampa's innumerable strip clubs that make staph look like the sniffles.
The Score: New Orleans 27, Tampa Bay 20
Panthers at Bills
Two teams that had elite opponents on the ropes, but nonetheless meet with identical 0-1 records as the Panthers head north to Buffalo. E.J. Manuel avoided the Bill Belichick Rookie QB Soul Jar with a solid debut and can now instead look forward to having his soul slowly drained out of him in Buffalo. Ron Rivera also has a soul jar, but it's filled with the essence of Panthers fans tormented by their team's all-too-frequent late-game botches and one-score defeats. Even the Rivera Stink won't be powerful enough to overcome the Upstate NY Malaise, however, and he'll fail to prevent the Panthers' stout defensive front from keying a narrow Carolina victory. But Lord knows he'll try.
The Score: Carolina 20, Buffalo 17
Undefeated AFC South rivals square off! The Titans uglied their way past a Steelers group that promises to take part in four or five of the season's 10 ugliest games. Houston fought off the Circadian sleep disadvantage and woke up in time to get past San Diego on the road. Texans' left tackle Duane Brown needs to bounce back after a horrendous Week 1, but if we chalk that up to Circadia then Andre Johnson and company should have little trouble in this home opener.
The Score: Houston 31, Tennessee 20
Chargers at Eagles
The Chip Kelly Tilt-a-Whirl was open for business Monday night as Michael Vick, Shady McCoy and the gang ran wild in the first half against Washington. That's a lot to cope with for any team, let alone an under-talented San Diego bunch playing three time zones East of home on a short week. Lady Circadia giveth, Mr. Rivers, but she also taketh away.
The Score: Philadelphia 34, San Diego 17
Lions at Cardinals
Something Old: Calvin Johnson producing P-Diddly squat in an early-season game; Ndamunkong Suh rocking a brain-dead personal foul.
Something New: A 4/37/0 line from CJ and a 15-yarder from Suh didn't doom the Lions to a 20-point defeat.
Something Borrowed: Miami import Reggie Bush running riot with 191 yards from scrimmage.
The Score: Detroit 30, Arizona 20
Browns at Ravens
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The Score: Baltimore 24, Cleveland 13
Steelers at Bengals
Ben Roethlisberger was livid on the sidelines of the Steelers' ugly and listless loss to the Titans. Backup center Fernando Velasco against the Bengals' Geno Atkins will do little to improve his mood -- or his health. Even if Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor does a strong job shadowing A.J. Green, the Bengals should have enough firepower to get past a Steelers' team that could face a season-long struggle to get in the end zone despite Big Ben's best efforts.
The Score: Cincinnati 24, Pittsburgh 13