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NFC Championship game Q&A
Seahawks.com and 49ers.com have joined forced to answer some pertinent questions concerning storylines, matchups and players to watch as the Seahawks and 49ers prepare for Sunday’s NFC Championship game at CenturyLink Field.
Doing the honors from San Francisco is Taylor Price, senior reporter at 49ers.com; while Clare Farnsworth, digital media writer at Seahawks.com, provides the answers on the Seahawks.
How have the 49ers changed from the team that played at CenturyLink Field in Week 2?
Michael Crabtree’s presence has sparked the entire 49ers’ roster. The return of the play-making, yards-after-the-catch-creating, fifth-year wide-out has given a boost to the entire team, not just the offense. The 49ers are 7-0 with Crabtree back in the fold. In those games, Crabtree has opened up opportunities for San Francisco’s other offensive weapons, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Frank Gore. Because the 49ers have a formidable one-two punch on the perimeter, defenses are no longer able to roll coverage to one side of the field or stack the box to stop the team’s multiple running schemes. Furthermore, when the offense is able to produce 10-play scoring drives, it keeps San Francisco’s defense fresh throughout the game. You could surely point to other aspects of the team improving since Week 2: things like solid special teams production, the offensive line playing as one of the top mauling units in the NFL or even the decision-making of Colin Kaepernick becoming more prudent as the season has evolved. All of those things have contributed to the recent run of success since Week 2. But when I sit here and evaluate the 49ers heading into CenturyLink on Sunday, Crabtree’s production and presence is what looms the largest. Kaepernick seems even more comfortable with single-covered weapons and the team is thriving off the clutch catches from Crabtree, who tore his Achilles in late May.
Which matchup is most key in the Seahawks-49ers rubber match?
How much confidence are the 49ers playing with after winning their past three games on the road to run their winning streak to eight in a row?
To steal a Jim Harbaugh saying, the team is “loose and focused.” I’d say the 49ers have certainly bonded from their road-warrior mentality. Spending so much time in airplanes, hotels and buses continues to keep this group close. From my vantage point, the locker room has been upbeat and confident throughout the postseason. I’ve never seen Harbaugh as giddy as he was following the wild-card win in Green Bay. He was hugging reporters. No, that’s not a typo. Winning on the frozen tundra and beating an Aaron Rodgers-led Packers team in less than ideal conditions was a major victory for this 49ers team. It spoke volumes about their mental toughness and ability to execute in challenging circumstances. Last week’s win in Carolina was not the same type of atmosphere, but it offered another glimpse into the competitive makeup of this team. The 49ers were up 6-0, quickly lost the lead, but rallied to score 17 unanswered points on the road. The crowd was silenced after scoring drives of 12, eight and 13 plays helped the road team mount a 23-10 advantage. Now I don’t foresee Seattle’s home crowd ever quieting into a hush, but I do think this recent run of road success will keep San Francisco in the fight for all 60 minutes unlike in Week 2.
What do the Seahawks need to do best to beat the 49ers?
Win on third downs. It has been a problem for the offense during the past five games, when the Seahawks have converted 19 of 65 third-down situations. That’s 29 percent, and that’s just not good enough. It has prevented them from sustaining drives, which has limited the number of plays they’ve been able to run, which has taken them out of their offense – not just off the field. Three times in the past five games, the Seahawks have run fewer than 60 offensive plays (50 against the 49ers, 51 against the Cardinals and 56 against the Saints). Granted, they’ve played four Top 10 defenses during this stretch. But they have to be better on Sunday. The Seahawks are all about running the ball to setup the play-action passing game for Russell Wilson. Marshawn Lynch broke out of a six-game slump where he had not rushed for 100 yards with his 140-yard performance in the playoff win over the Saints. But Wilson has had only one 200-yard passing game during this stretch, and that was just barely (206 against the Giants). He is completing 57 percent of a passes (68 of 120), averaging 157.6 passing yards and has four TD passes and three interceptions. As with the third-down conversion percentage, that’s just not good enough.
Which individual matchup will be most key in the 49ers-Seahawks rubber match?
I’ll go with a unit, rather than one player, and it has to be the 49ers’ linebackers. It will start with the line’s ability to deal with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who are so good at clogging the lanes that Lynch likes to exploit and also capable of applying pressure up the middle on Wilson. I tried to limit the topic to those two in talking to Pete Carroll, but he expanded it to include Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith. Just one more reason why he’s coaching the team and I’m writing about it. The pressure Brooks and Smith can generate will force Wilson to spin and whirl to avoid them, which plays into the 49ers’ strength – the mobility and playmaking ability of those linebackers. As Carroll put it, “When we evaluate their defense, the great strength they have is their four linebackers are really fantastic. That’s really the heart of the problem is those four guys.”