The 49ers and Seahawks both come into this game on massive highs. San Francisco just went into New England to hand the Patriots their first December home loss in over 10 years. Seattle, on the other hand, has put up 50+ points in their last two games, the first team to achieve that feat since 1950. Both teams have reason to be confident. Both teams need the victory. Both teams hate each other. What we have is a grudge match of epic proportions between two young teams on the rise, both with designs on making noise in the postseason.
These two teams met in Week 7 on Thursday night at the 'Stick. Both teams have grown leaps and bounds on offense since then. The 49ers, as you might have heard, have changed quarterbacks, eschewing the 'game-managing' Alex Smith for second-year, rifle-armed Colin Kaepernick. The Seahawks have watched rookie Russell Wilson grow from a passable starter to a possible star, far sooner than anyone would have dreamed of.
Since Kaepernick took over the reigns in San Francisco, the 49ers are averaging 28.8 points a game and have added a deep threat that was lacking with Smith under center. All four of Kaepernick's touchdown passes last week against New England went for over 24 yards. The 38-yard game-winner to Michael Crabtree, on a 5-yard hitch route, was the only one that required YAC (yards after catch) to get into the end zone. Kapernick has executed plays at the end of the last two games to ensure victory and according to ESPN is the best QB in the fourth quarter in the league, albeit in a small sample size.
Russell Wilson has been no less spectacular. After a slow start, Wilson has come on strong and has the highest QBR rating, again, per ESPN, of any QB in the league over his last six. Last week, against the hapless Buffalo Bills, Wilson rushed for three touchdowns and passed for another. Despite the massive output in the last two games, it has only served to raise their offense to 11th overall in points and 16th in yards. This is more of an indictment of their play during the first half of the season than anything else.
While the two young quarterbacks are likely to receive the lion's share of attention leading up to the game, the outcome will most likely hinge on the running game, much as it did in Week 7. Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch are two of the marquee names in the league at the position and will undoubtedly be the focal point for both teams, but they are not the only elements of the two teams' respective running attacks.
Both teams have capable backups. Gore was backed up by Kendall Hunter until he went down with a season-ending injury against the Saints in Week 12. Second-round pick LaMichael James is now the 49ers No. 2 running back after spending most of the year inactive. He's shown a flair for the big play and his 62-yard kick return last weekend against New England sparked a lifeless 49ers team to victory after they had given up 28 unanswered points.
James is averaging 3.8 yards per carry. He has 61 yards on 16 carries for the year, but 40 of the yards came on three runs. The other 13 runs have gained 20 yards. Getting James fully integrated into the offense and utilizing his big-play ability will be critical for the 49ers' success, both Sunday and throughout the playoffs. Until they can get James to hit the hole and get the 5-yard gains, like Gore and Hunter (before his injury) have done all year long, he'll likely be limited in his carries, forcing Gore to shoulder a larger portion of the running load.
Marshawn Lynch has been an absolute terror this season. His 1,379 yards rank him second behind Adrian Peterson. Over the last two games he's rushed for 241 yards and 4 touchdowns on only 21 carries for an average of 11.5 yards per carry. His 10 rushing touchdowns are tied for fourth in the league. In their first meeting, Lynch had 101 yards against the highly-touted San Francisco run defense. His primary backup, rookie Robert Turbin is coming on strong and had career-highs in carries (20) and yards (108) against the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago. His previous highs were 7 and 45.
Key to both teams' success this Sunday will be the offensive line play. The two come into the game ranked one and two in Football Outsiders adjusted line yards. The 49ers had led the league all season in this statistic, but the Seahawks have rushed for 174 yards or more in five of their last six games. Last time the two faced off, the 49ers' offensive line dominated, allowing Gore to run for 84 of his 131 yards before contact! He averaged 5.3 yards per carry before first contact. Ridiculous stats from the good people at Pro Football Focus.
Not to be outdone by their backfield counterparts, both Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are excellent running quarterbacks. Kaepernick holds the edge on Wilson. Kaepernick has 53 carries for 381 yards and five touchdowns on a 7.2 yard average. Wilson, boosted by last weekend's monster outing, has 402 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns on 78 carries, an average of 5.2 per. Kaepernick's average yards per carry is second in the league behind, you guessed it, Jake Locker?!? Kaepernick has more designed runs, but Wilson seems just as effective at making plays with his feet once protection breaks down, so the gap is minimal.
If all things appear equal in the running attacks, the defensive side of the ball will settle things and here is where the two teams differ. The 49ers' defense is ranked third against the run in both yards allowed and yards per carry against. The Seahawks front is ranked 10th but has been on a downward slide. They started the season strongly but, beginning with their Week 7 visit to Candlestick, the Seahawks are ranked 32nd in yards per carry allowed over that time period (per Mike Sando).
Two stats from the first encounter, again from our good friends at PFF, demonstrate the difference. Of the eight players who saw playing time on the defensive line for Seattle only one made a stop. All four D-line starters recorded career low ratings from PFF for that game.
Both teams are nearly identical in their passing attacks and both teams feature excellent pass defenses, with the 49ers leading the league in yards per attempt allowed while the Seahawks rank 3rd. There are some question marks for both teams. Richard Sherman's appeal of his suspension for PEDs is, as of yet, unresolved. His last tweet in regards to the subject (as I write this) asked people not to ask him about the appeal, but stated that he would play Sunday.
Niners leading receiver Michael Crabtree has averaged over 100 yards per game over the last three contests and is fast becoming Colin Kaepernick's favorite target. But Sherman's physical brand of play may negate him. He had 4 catches for 31 yards in the first encounter. Mario Manningham, the 49ers' 2nd-leading receiver is listed as questionable, after missing the last two games with a shoulder injury.
That leaves the door open for a tight end to step up big. Delanie Walker scored a touchdown against the Patriots but also had a costly fumble in the red zone. Vernon Davis has been missing in action since his big game against the Bears. He has 4 catches for 29 yards and zero touchdowns over the last four games. He has one touchdown since Week 3. Getting either of the tight ends, or a combination of the two, to pose some kind of threat to the linebacking corps will only serve to open up the run game even more.
As for the Seahawks passing game, Russell Wilson had his worst outing of the year against the 49ers in Week 7, finishing the game with a 38.7 passer rating while completing 39% of his passes. Wilson, as we know, is not the same player in Week 16 as he was in Week 7. The 49ers did have success pressuring Wilson without blitzing. He's been on fire lately when teams bring more than four. The 49ers, though, rarely do as NFL sack leader Aldon Smith and the rest of the 49ers' pass rush generate enough on their own. If Justin Smith, nursing an elbow injury is unable to suit up, or is limited in any way, the 49ers' will experience a drop off in production and it could open things up for Wilson and the 'Hawks.
That leaves us with two teams, nearly identical, with one glaring exception. The 49ers' run defense, with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman backing up a stout defensive line and sure-tackling secondary is the difference. The game, however, is being played in at CenturyLink Field where the Seahawks enjoy one of the best home-field advantage in all of professional sports. Were it not for Week 10, I'd be inclined to call for a tie, but that's the coward's way out.
I'm taking the 49ers on this one. Seattle's defensive line is just shaky enough to give up the decisive play. I expect both Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch to run hard and both quarterbacks to keep up their strong play. But I'm looking at LaMichael James and Colin Kaepernick to both make a big play in this one. Either one, if they can get into the secondary untouched, as so many 49ers' runs did in the first matchup, is a twitch away from scoring a touchdown. And that will win the game. A back and forth contest ends with the 49ers winning 24-20 and clinching the NFC West title for the second year in a row.