Countdown to kickoff: The NFC Championship game

Posted Jan 19, 2014

The Seahawks and 49ers have played all season for this moment – the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2. So the rivalry between these NFC West foes is about to reach a new level at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.

Greetings from CenturyLink Field – for the final time in the 2013 season, and where in a few hours the Seahawks and 49ers will clash in a just-can’t’-get-any-better-than-this matchup for the NFC Championship and a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.

This is familiar territory for the Boys From the Bay Area, because they are playing in their third consecutive NFC title game – making them one of only 12 teams to accomplish that three-peat since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger; and also because they have played in Seattle every season since 2002, when realignment laid the groundwork for what has become one of the best rivalries in football.

But this is all new for the Seahawks, who last played in the NFC Championship game after the 2005 season. None of the current players were on that team which beat the Carolina Panthers in Seattle to advance to the only Super Bowl in franchise history.

The Seahawks have approached this week as they have every week in a 2013 season that saw them match the 2005 team’s franchise mark for best regular-season record (13-3), which also earned these Seahawks the same trifecta as the ’05 team – the NFC West title, the top seed in the postseason and home-field advantage for the NFC title game.

Or at least they tried to. There was the now mantra-like talk of taking this as the next championship opportunity and trying to go 1-0 this week. But the week wasn’t the same, as the national media descended on Virginia Mason Athletic Center to remind everyone that this isn’t just the next game – it’s the final game of the 2013 season for either the 49ers or Seahawks, a launching pad to MetLife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2 for the other.

Second-year QB Russell Wilson was limited to one group interview session a week during the regular season, but last week he was at the podium in the auditorium at VMAC on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; and also did more TV and radio interviews than usual. It was the same not-the-same-routine for many of his higher-profile teammates.

“It felt normal,” coach Pete Carroll said Friday, when asked how the team handled the outside distractions – which included him also doing more with the media than usual. “Really, I think there were a couple more minutes that we had to allow for the media and all that, but otherwise everybody really stayed true to form and I thought that it was handled very well.”

There’s nothing about the trappings that come with this game that will be normal. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell being in attendance. The FOX pregame show being conducted on the field. The halftime show that will feature Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. The Halas Trophy being in the house, so it can be presented to the NFC Champions moments after the game.

But once the game begins, these two teams know one another beyond-well. The Seahawks won 29-3 at CenturyLink Field in Week 2. The 49ers won 19-17 at Candlestick Park in Week 14. The Seahawks have beaten the 49ers four of the past five times they’ve played in Seattle. The 49ers have beaten the Seahawks five times in the past seven meetings.

And the winner in this biggest matchup will be the one who scores the most points. That’s a duh cliché, but very much on point because the question all week has been: How will the Seahawks be able to score enough points to beat the 49ers, who have averaged 26 points during their current eight-game winning streak?

Starting with that two-point loss on a last-second field goal to the 49ers in Week 14, the Seahawks’ offense has struggled on third downs, which has impeded putting together scoring drives, which has limited the offensive output to 17, 23, 10, 20 and 23 points the past five games. There have been too many three-and-outs (19) and not enough 80-yard drives (two); more field goals (10) than touchdowns (nine).

That’s been a major factor in the Seahawks going 3-2 over their past five games after starting 11-1.

But as Marshawn Lynch, the Beast Mode back of so few words but so many actions, put it on Friday: “Our team feels like we haven’t done anything yet.”

In Sunday’s just-another-game that isn’t, the Seahawks will be trying to do what only one other team in the 38-season history of the franchise has.

So enjoy this it-just-doesn’t-get-any-better-than-this matchup, with kickoff and televised coverage on FOX (Q/13) set for 3:30 p.m.

Sunday showdown: Marshawn Lynch vs Frank Gore

We’ve already touched on what Marshawn Lynch means to the Seahawks, and what Frank Gore means to the 49ers, and what their performances could mean to the outcome. But we just can’t shake the feeling that the back who has the busiest and most-productive day leads his team to the Super Bowl.

Gore combined for 150 rushing yards in the road playoff victories over the Packers and Panthers that delivered the 49ers to the NFC Championship game. Lynch had a franchise-record 140 rushing yards in the Seahawks’ win over the Saints last week. Gore can be tough to tackle, because of his low center of gravity and his ability to duck behind his huge offensive linemen and then dart through a gap. Lynch can be tough to tackle, period, because of the way he runs – wide-legged and always plowing forward. Against the Saints, Lynch broke 13 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, while every other back in last weekend’s four games combined for 17 broken tackles.