Since the start of last season, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have battled for everything. They've gone head-to-head on the field, fought for the rights to the NFC West, even gone back-and-forth with offseason acquisitions. It seems the only place they haven't competed with each other is in the playoffs. Until now.
The teams will play for the NFC title in Seattle on Sunday with one moving on to the Super Bowl and the other being forced to swallow a very bitter pill. Coming up short of a Super Bowl is always going to be a disappointment, but having your season end at the hands of your rival will leave a bad taste in one of the team's proverbial mouth.
Meet the Seahawks
While Russell Wilson may garner the attention, it's been the Seattle defense leading the way late in the year. Seattle finished the regular season atop the NFL in scoring and total defense. Including the playoffs, Seattle has allowed 4.5 yards per play this season, the best mark in the league. Statistically, Seattle's biggest weakness defensively was against the run, but the Seahawks improved dramatically late in the season. In their last three games, they allowed just 3.0 yards per rush attempt.
For most of the season, Seattle was an efficient offensive team, even if it didn't put up massive yardage totals. The Seahawks averaged 5.5 yards per play, but that number dropped to 4.3 in their last three games. A lack off success through the air has been the biggest issue. Including the playoffs, Seattle has averaged 7.6 yards per pass attempt this season, but just 5.1 during their previous three games.
Wilson and Seattle may need to be better if the Seahawks are going to advance and they'll have to do it without Harvin who was not medically cleared.
Meet the 49ers
The 49ers will enter the game riding high. San Francisco has won eight straight games -- including one against Seattle -- and won back-to-back road playoff games for the first time in team history. It hasn't all been pretty, with a few close wins, but the 49ers have managed to get the job done.
The next challenge will be to make it three in a row on the road. Doing so will require San Francisco play much better than the last two times it traveled to Seattle. The 49ers lost 29-3 in Seattle this season and 42-13 last year. Frank Gore could be the key to success for the 49ers. In San Francisco's two wins against Seattle since 2012, Gore averaged 120.5 yards per game and 7.3 yards per attempt. Those numbers drop to a dismal 22 YPG and 2.9 YPA in the two losses. The 49ers are built around running the football and Gore will be at the forefront of that attack.
San Francisco's defense has been one of the best units in the league in recent seasons and that was again the case this year. The 49ers, however, have been vulnerable recently. Including the playoffs, San Francisco has allowed 5.0 yards per play this season, the eighth-best mark in the NFL. That number has jumped to 5.8 in its last three games, including 6.0 last week against Carolina. The 49ers still came away with a win, but may need to be better with very little margin for error.
Local Takes: Seattle
The good news for this week? A rejuvenated Marshawn Lynch, along with a re-tooled offensive line grouping, made up for Wilson's inordinately-pronounced deficiencies throwing the football, and rushed for 174 yards on 35 carries against the Saints and that set the tone for the whole game. It's pretty clear to me that this will be the strategy again this week.
Bottom line: if Seattle can run, and/or if Seattle has a lead, expect a fairly ugly offensive passing game. I am. Anything smooth or efficient would surprise me. It's the playoffs. It's the Niners. Running. That is the name of the game.
Local Takes: San Francisco
Despite Seattle having a better record during the regular season, James Brady of Niners Nation wrote the 49ers have been the better team recently:
But it's the 49ers who carry momentum right now. The Seahawks had a seven-game winning streak during the regular season, but that was snapped when the 49ers beat them at Candlestick Park in Week 14. Much was different in that game for San Francisco, the least of which was not the return of Michael Crabtree, who always opens things up in the passing game.
Since losing that game, the Seahawks have lost a game at home -- to the Arizona Cardinals -- and struggled against the Saints. They also have gone 3-2 since their winning streak, counting the loss to the 49ers. Meanwhile, the 49ers have now won eight consecutive games and will head to Seattle with that in mind.
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Random fact, the 49ers and Seahawks are tied 15-15 in the all-time series. Fitting the chance to break the series tie comes in the NFCCG— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) January 15, 2014
@bcondotta -- Seahawks beat writer
Here's some info on the officiating crew for the Seahawks Sunday: http://t.co/zBiW0N4pwn— Bob Condotta (@bcondotta) January 15, 2014
@mattbarrows -- 49ers beat writer
Joe Buck & Troy Aikman probably don't need to do much studying this week. They'll call their third straight #49ers game on Sunday.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) January 15, 2014
SB Nation's NFL experts were almost evenly split on the matchup with four picking Seattle and two picking the 49ers.
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Seattle opened as a 3-point betting favorite, according to OddShark.com. The total opened at 39 points, with oddsmakers expecting a defensive battle.
Neither team will be in action next week, although they will be doing very different things. The winner will be preparing for the Super Bowl while the loser's season will be done. A few players from the losing team may head to the Pro Bowl.