If you showed game tape of San Francisco’s performances in Seattle over the past two years to this 49ers team, I’m not sure they would recognize themselves onscreen. The 49ers got their revenge for two Pacific Northwest blowouts at the hands of the Seahawks with a 19-17 win in Week 14, giving Colin Kaepernick his first victory against Russell Wilson. In his two road starts against Wilson, though, Kaepernick had been outscored by a combined 71-16 margin, with those two games representing Kaepernick’s two largest losses since taking the starting gig from Alex Smith last year. Now, in the NFC Championship Game, Kaepernick and his team have an even bigger goal in mind: to prove they’re the better team of these two NFC West juggernauts by winning in Seattle’s cauldron of noise. Oh, and if they pull that off, they can knock an even bigger item off their to-do list by making a return trip to the Super Bowl.
It’s easy to conflate those two losses with games that the Niners had no hope of winning, but after being blown out from just about the beginning of the first Kaepernick-Wilson matchup in Seattle last year, they were actually competitive for most of the rematch in Week 2 this season, really only collapsing early in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, in Kaepernick’s first win over the Seahawks last month, the game basically came down to Frank Gore beating Earl Thomas on one snap late in the fourth quarter. It was that close.
That would seem to suggest that the Seahawks should be comfortable favorites in this game; with that being said, that’s not really the case. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it feels like the 49ers are playing their best football of the season, and while that’s usually just nonsense, San Francisco is on an eight-game winning streak that has seen it welcome key contributors like Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith back into the fold. It just outmuscled the 12-4 Panthers in Carolina in what was probably the team’s most impressive win of the year.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, are in the middle of a relatively mild run. The fortress-like protection afforded them by their home turf slipped a bit after Seattle lost to Arizona in Week 16, leaving Wilson with his first home loss as a pro. Then, last week, Wilson’s offense scuffled in the drab weather against a prepared Saints defense for most of the first three quarters, allowing the Saints to hold on and make what should have been a finished game a contest in the fourth quarter. If you believe in that stuff, it would be hard to argue anything besides the idea that San Francisco is trending up and Seattle is trending down right now.
Of course, it takes one game to stop all that. And this might very well be that game.
–Bill Barnwell, Grantland.com
Fans of the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks — and even fans of Stanford and USC’s football programs — know about the history between coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll.
The parallels between their careers will create some shared story lines entering today’s NFC Championship Game. In 2007, Harbaugh’s first year as coach at Stanford, he said he heard Carroll would only be at USC “one more year.” Carroll actually remained in the college ranks for three more years, two of which included losses to Harbaugh’s underdog Cardinal, highlighted by the “What’s your deal?” game that included a verbal confrontation between the coaches after Carroll believed Harbaugh was running up the score during Stanford’s 55-21 victory in 2009.
Carroll joined the Seahawks in 2010 and Harbaugh took the 49ers’ job the following season. The latter began his NFL coaching career with a 33-7 win over the visiting Seahawks at Candlestick Park, though the rivalry has been fairly even so far, with Harbaugh holding a 4-2 edge in their regular-season matchups.
“He’s a really good football coach,” Carroll said of Harbaugh. “He’s got a way about him that starts with a really fundamental approach to the game.”
Today will be the first time the two coaches have faced off in the playoffs — though from what Harbaugh has said all week, you would think they had never met before.
“Animosity, no, erroneous, erroneous,” he said of the perceived tension between coaches. “It’s football. It’s competition. It’s winning.”
So what have they shared over the past seven years?
“We’ve had football, competition, winning,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the sport, that’s what we have had, great competition.”
Calling it great competition is not a stretch. The games between Seattle and San Francisco have been physical, with plenty of trash-talking on both sides over the past three seasons.
Harbaugh did at least admit he has come to recognize certain traits from a Carroll-coached team, though none of them are going to fuel any trash-talk today.
“A lot of good things,” he said. “It’d be a long list of football attributes. How well they’re coached. What a great job their organization does. The competitiveness of their players. Execution, consistently really, really good week after week. And it’s hard to get to this point. … And they did it better than anybody did it this entire season. So, a great task, great challenge ahead of us 49ers.”
–Ben Martin, San Francisco Examiner
Eastern Conference scout on the Kings’ Rudy Gay gamble:
“The Kings are relevant again. That’s why this was a good trade. Now they’ve got a point guard, small forward and center that can score 20 every night. This team still has to develop a defensive identity, but they’ve become very tough to beat on their home court and that hasn’t been the case for quite a while. They’ve taken the first step toward legitimacy.
“It’s easy to pile on and rip on Rudy Gay, but I’m not one of those people. Everyone thought Memphis was crazy for taking on Zach Randolph’s contract and he ended up changing his whole reputation. The perception of Z-Bo is much different now than it was when he was with the Clippers or New York. Why can’t Rudy do the same?
“I know the contract boxed [the Kings] in money-wise, but teams in their situation that aren’t going to get free agents have to pay more to get good players. This is still the honeymoon phase we often see when a player gets traded, but I’d be encouraged by what the Kings are getting from [Gay] so far.
“If you can get to 34-35 wins [this season], that’s a start. I thought Sacramento would be a little bit more like Charlotte in terms of improving their defense [under new coach Mike Malone] — I thought there would be more of an immediate difference [as seen with the Bobcats under Steve Clifford] — but it’s not an easy situation to navigate because the Kings have so many offensive-oriented players.
“[DeMarcus] Cousins is in better shape, so he has the stamina to finish games, which is very important. He’s a very good offensive player who puts up numbers every night — he’s just bigger and stronger than everyone else — but with him it all starts with his conditioning. AndIsaiah Thomas … you’ve got to give him a lot of credit. He’s fearless with the ball and he’s carved out a really nice niche. I didn’t think he could do this coming out of college.
“Does [Thomas] distribute the ball great? No. He’s not a classic point guard. But he gets to call most of the plays. He has some freedom and may not be as good if there was a ton of halfcourt structure. I’m telling you: When Sacramento’s top three guys are on, you’re not going to be able to keep up with them.
“But now the Kings need to give Malone some time. You’ve got your guy; let this group grow together. You can’t be changing everything every two years like the Kings were doing before the ownership change. Instability has been a big problem in Sacramento. They have a bit of a foundation now and the trade is working out better than I thought it would.”
–Marc Stein, ESPN.com