The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will meet for the third time this season for the NFC championship game. The two teams split the series this season with each win coming at the respective team’s home field. This might bode well for the Seahawks as the game is playing up north in Seattle, but the game still needs to be played. Some people will point to the scores of the last two games as indicators of what will happen in this game. To do that would be foolish. The two teams are not the same as they were in week 16 of 2012; they aren’t even the same as they were in week two of this season. This game could go either way. For the 49ers, there are certain match-ups that they need to win individually in order to win as a team.
49ers’ pass rush vs. Russell Wilson
On some sites, it’s almost blasphemy to even suggest the Russell Wilson is struggling. And if someone is brave enough to do it, they always have to preface it with something like: “Russell Wilson is a great quarterback that has potential to be one of the best but…” I’m not going to do that. Russell Wilson is going through the exact same thing as Colin Kaepernick at the beginning of the season. And back then, no one was starting a critique with a compliment for Colin.
Wilson is missing wide open throws and has looked pretty bad at some times. In the last five games Wilson is only averaging 158 yards per game with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Teams are forcing Wilson to stay in the pocket and making him try beat them with his arm, and he looks flustered. Wilson is feeling the same pains as Kaepernick did for the first stretch of the season. They are injured at the wide receiver position and no one fears them on the outside. This allows defenses to put their corners on islands against their receivers and just rush the quarterback. The St. Louis Rams employed this strategy early in the season and the Arizona Cardinals did it again a few weeks ago. I expect the 49ers to follow the same formula. The 49ers’ pass rush needs to take advantage of this brief moment of weakness. They must keep Wilson in the pocket and force him to beat them with his arm. If they allow him to do his acrobatic act of running back and forth and dodging defenders, eventually he’s going to find a receiver open down the field. They need to force him to remain in the pocket, and then collapse the pocket in on him.
Luckily for Wilson and the Seahawks, they, like Kaepernick, can lean on their stud running back and elite defense. Which leads me to my next point.
49ers’ front seven vs. Marshawn Lynch
Up until the last week of the season, Marshawn Lynch was struggling just like the rest of Seattle’s offense. He has recently found a rhythm, and that is not good for the 49ers. Like I wrote above, Wilson and the passing offense are in a slump. That means that they are going to lean heavily on their star running back and hope that he gets into a groove. The 49ers can’t let that happen. They need to shut Lynch down from the beginning and put the ball in Wilson’s hands. If Lynch gets going, then the game can be over quickly. With Lynch, it doesn’t matter how much their young quarterback is struggling. Just give him the ball and he’ll carry the offense for them.
Lynch has hurt the 49ers in the past, but they bottled him up pretty well the last time they played. The 49ers need their pro bowl linebacker corps to step up and play like everyone expects them to play. They need to close the holes and hit Lynch at the line. They can’t let him get into the secondary with a head of steam, because then he’s hard to stop.
The 49ers’ passing offense vs. the Seahawks’ secondary
The best offense is a good defense, right? That must be Seattle’s team motto, because that’s how they’ve been playing lately. Their offense hasn’t been putting up a whole lot of points, but that’s okay when you got this defense behind you. The Seahawks’ defense helps their offense by not only being the league’s best scoring defense, but from forcing turnovers also. The Seahawks are leading the league in turnover differential with a +20 differential. This is the key to the game right here.
The 49ers absolutely cannot afford to lose the turnover battle. Colin Kaepernick has thrown five of his 11 career regular season interceptions against the Seahawks. He can’t afford to spot Seattle anymore extra possessions this time. Now the difference between this match-up and the week two match-up, is Michael Crabtree. Ever since Crabtree has come back, Kaepernick has played like one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He needs to continue this hot streak this Sunday. With Crabtree, Boldin, and Davis, Kaepernick has all the weapons he needs to beat the Seahawks. Kaepernick needs to make smart decisions and not try to force things. Once he begins to force things, the game will start going sour real soon. Whether it’s Boldin, Crabtree, or Davis, one of them needs to step up and have a great game and be Kaepernick’s safety blanket. Against Green Bay it was Crabtree and against Carolina it was Boldin. Is it Davis’ turn? We’ll find out.
Frank Gore vs. the Seahawks’ front seven
Every time these games against Seattle come around, I always say the say same thing: feed Frank Gore. When they do, it takes pressure off of Kaepernick and good things happen. The last two time that the 49ers have visited Seattle Frank Gore has gotten 15 carries. That’s not per quarter, per half, that’s not even per game. That is the last two games combined. 15 carries. And people wonder why they’ve gotten blown out both times.
No matter what the situation might be, the 49ers need to give the ball to Gore. He might not get big chunks at the start of the game, but it keeps the defense honest and wears them down. If the pass rush just hesitates for a second because they think Gore is getting the ball, that second could be the difference between a completion and an incompletion. Let Frank Gore go to work. If he has another one of his great games, it makes it a whole lot easier on the rest of the offense. The 49ers need to give the ball to Gore earlier and often, and let him take them to the Super Bowl for the second straight year.