The NFC Championship game is here and it’s the match up the entire NFL has been waiting for since last January. The Seattle Seahawks came within an Atlanta Falcon game ending field goal of advancing to play in last year’s NFC title game in San Francisco. 364 days later the San Francisco 49ers and the Seahawks will finally meet to decide the NFC title. The 49ers have won 13 of their last 15 games, including eight in a row. They are playing their best football of the season and arguably better than any of the other three remaining playoff teams. The Seahawks have a tremendous home field advantage, yet the 49ers are well equipped to escape Seattle with a victory and a return trip to the Super Bowl.
Coming into Sunday, the 49ers offense is playing its best ball of the season. QB Colin Kaepernick is performing close to last year’s playoff level, when he led his team to the Super Bowl before he even had a years worth of starts under his belt. During their current win streak, Kaepernick has thrown 12 touchdown passes against only two interceptions. He is taking full advantage of the talented group of receivers he has at his disposal. It has been very difficult for opposing defenses to account for Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtreee and Vernon Davis. Teams might be able to shut down one or two but keeping all three contained is asking too much, even for a Seattle secondary that’s second to none. Last week Seattle concentrated it’s defensive efforts on Jimmy Graham, the only tight end in the game that’s more dangerous than the 49ers’ Davis. This plan worked as they held the first team all pro Graham to one catch. The side effect of this strategy allowed WR Marques Colston to have a huge game (QB skills aside), catching 11 passes for 144 yards. As we’ve seen in recent games, rolling your pass defense to one receiver’s side of the field allows space for the other receiver to create big plays in space when matched up with the other team’s inferior cornerback.
It’s safe to say the 49ers offensive line had it’s worst game of the season in the teams last trip to the Pacific Northwest. They will be key in keeping the Seattle pass rush at bay and buying Kaepernick time to find his crew of talented pass catchers. They will also need to open up holes in the run game to allow Frank Gore to pick up chunks of yards on first and second down. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman would be well served to maintain a healthy balance between the run and the pass in his play calling. Roman has a tendency to go a little off the rails as far as balance goes and he will often call several straight pass plays when the offense is running the ball effectively. Moving forward, gaining positive yards and finding a rhythm is going to be gigantic in moving the ball and putting up points on the NFL’s number one defense.
The 49ers defense strikes a perfect counterbalance to Seattle’s offensive strong points. The Seahawks have the best secondary in football, but the 49ers field the finest group of linebackers. The 49ers front seven is dominant in defending against the run. In what has become an annual tradition, the defense has not allowed a 100 yard rusher this season. The engine that powers the Seattle attack offensively is Marshawn Lynch. The 49ers defense held Lynch in check in both times they faced him this year. Lynch carried the ball 48 times and totaled 170 yards combined in the two games. That’s an average of 3.5 yards a carry, over half a yard below his average over the entire season. Holding a top five running back to 3.5 yards per carry is as close to shutting Lynch down as it gets.
In the last month, Seattle has not asked QB Russell Wilson to do a whole lot outside of not turning the ball over. Early in the season Wilson was outstanding, even to the point where people talked about him as a dark horse MVP candidate. Well, the wheels have come off that bandwagon as of late. Wilson has had a few mediocre games and outright struggled in others during December and into January. In Seattle’s only home loss of the season Wilson was 11 of 27 for 108 yards versus Arizona. Last week’s divisional playoff game against New Orleans saw him go 9 of 18 for 103 yards. To be fair, the Seattle wide receiving corps have been decimated by injuries. Ultra expensive free agent acquisition Percy Harvin participated in a grand total of 38 snaps this season while Sidney Rice is on IR and won’t see the field until next season. The remaining wide relievers that will take the field this Sunday are less than stellar. The situation is very similar to the 2011 49ers team. By the time they reached the NFC title game, injuries and departures forced the 49ers to depend on Kyle Williams and Brent Swain in the biggest game of the season. We all know how that turned out. In the first round of the playoffs the 49ers held one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Aaron Rogers, to 177 yards passing. Last week the pass defense kept Cam Newton to just over 200 pre-garbage time yards. If the 49ers defense can contain Lynch as they did in the first two meetings this year and force Wilson to depend on his wide receivers to make plays, they could be well on their way to a dominant day.
The unknown factor on Sunday is how the 49ers will handle this trip to Seattle. The last two times they’ve traveled north they have completely crapped the bed, to be blunt. The Seahawks enjoy a home field advantage that gets A LOT of coverage. However, the impact of the “12th man” can be greatly exaggerated. Although it’s often made out that the 49ers haven’t won a game at Century Link Field in decades, they in fact won there two years ago. The same year Seattle went 4-4 at home. The stadium is the same. The crowd is the same. The same fans wear the same wigs, make up and feather boas they did in 2011. The only difference is the team. Seattle never enjoyed this much of a home field advantage until they began fielding one of the NFL’s premier squads. The 49ers are also one of the NFL’s best teams and they will need to play like it on Sunday. The offense has only turned the ball over four times in the last eight games. They need to continue to protect the ball, not turn it over five times like they did last September in Seattle. They have greatly reduced their penalties over the course of the season since they were flagged 12 times in that first meeting. No mistakes allowed. This Seattle team is much too good to gift wrap them opportunities. The 49ers come into the NFC championship game on a hot steak and are absolutely peaking at the perfect time. They’ve passed brutal road tests in frigid Green Bay and traveled across the country and defeated a scorching Carolina team that finished 12-4. They might never have a better shot at winning a playoff game in Seattle then this Sunday. The only thing left to do is take advantage of this enormous opportunity.
Photo Credit: AP