Five matchups to watch: Seahawks vs 49ers

Posted Jan 18, 2014

The NFC Champion will be crowned at CenturyLink Field on Sunday, when the top-seeded Seahawks will meet the No. 5-seed and NFC West-rival 49ers for the third time this season.

A look at the Seahawks’ NFC Championship matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, including five matchups that could impact the outcome:

When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m., CenturyLink Field

Records: Seahawks were 13-3 during the regular season to win the NFC West and clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed in the postseason; 49ers were 12-4 to finish second in the NFC West and wrap up the No. 5 seed.

Postseason: Seahawks beat the No. 6-seed New Orleans Saints 23-15 in the divisional round last Saturday; 49ers beat the NFC North Champion and No. 4 seed Packers in Green Bay 23-20 in the wild-card round and then beat the NFC South Champion and No. 2-seed Panthers in Carolina 23-10 in the divisional round last Sunday.

What’s at stake: The winner advances to Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2 to play the winner of Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.

TV: FOX (Q13), with Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver and Erin Andrews

Radio: 710 ESPN and 97.3 KIRO FM, with Steve Raible, Warren Moon and Jen Mueller

Matchup microscope

Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore: Neither of these hard-running backs has to tackle the other, obviously, but the coaches and players from both teams stress that containing Lynch and Gore is where it all starts in trying to stop the other team. And recent history supports their concerns. In the Seahawks’ 29-3 victory at CenturyLink Field in Week 2, Lynch ran for 98 yards and scored three times, while Gore averaged 1.8 yards on nine carries. In the 49ers’ 19-17 victory at Candlestick Park in Week 14, it was Gore with 110 yards, including a season-long 51-yard run to set up the game-winning field goal with 26 seconds to play; and Lynch averaging 3.6 yards on 20 carries. So expect to see a lot of eight-in-the-box alignments from both defenses. The Seahawks have had 109 snaps with at least eight defenders in the box, the fifth-highest total in the league according to ESPN stats and info. But Gore has run into eight-or-more fronts 92 times this season for 333 yards, the second-highest totals in the NFL behind the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson. Lynch, meanwhile, is averaging 2.0 yards after contact, up from 2012; but 2.3 yards before contact, a yard less than in 2012. So it’s hardly a stretch to think that the back who has the upper hand on Sunday leads his team to the Super Bowl.

One to watch

The Seahawks offensive line vs. the 49ers’ front seven: The Seahawks will have a difficult time running or passing if they can’t control the 49ers’ defensive line and linebackers, especially the Pro Bowl duo of inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. They combined for 339 tackles during the regular season and have added 50 in the postseason. Bowman and Willis are capable of clogging the running lanes that Lynch is so good at exploiting and also applying pressure on QB Russell Wilson up the gut. And speaking of pressure, that’s where outside ’backers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith come into play. They combined for 17 sacks during the regular season and have added six in the postseason. So dealing with them, as well as lineman Justin Smith (115 tackles and 6.5 sacks in the regular season), will be a tackle-to-tackle task for the Seahawks’ line of Russell Okung, rookie Michael Bowie, Pro Bowl center Max Unger, J.R. Sweezy and Breno Giacomini.

Fun to watch

Seahawks CB Richard Sherman vs. whomever he’s covering: After Anquan Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards in the season opener; the Seahawks used Sherman to cover him roughly 75 percent of the time in their Week 2 matchup at CenturyLink Field. Boldin had one catch for 7 yards, and that came against zone coverage. The return of Michael Crabtree makes it more difficult for the Seahawks to match Sherman against one option or the other. And don’t forget about Vernon Davis, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound tight end with wide receiver speed and skills. Sherman led the NFL in interceptions with eight, and has led the league over the past three seasons with 20. So he needs to “win” regardless of which receiver he’s matched up against, and adding to his interception total to provide field position for the offense would be a bonus.

One tough task

Colin Kaepernick vs. CenturyLink Field: The 49ers’ QB has gotten it done with his arm and his legs in the playoffs the past two years. He ran for 181 yards against the Packers last season, and has five rushing touchdowns in the postseason. He passed for 302 yards in the 49ers’ Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens. This season, he had a 14-yard average as a runner against the Packers in the wild-card round and had TDs rushing and passing last week against the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round. But at CenturyLink Field, Kaepernick has not had nearly as much success. In two games, Kaepernick the passer is 32 of 64 for 371 yards, with one TD pass and four interceptions; while Kaepernick the runner had 87 yards in Week 2 this season, but 31 on seven carries in the Week 16 game last season. And, he has yet to do his biceps-kissing celebration in the either end zone. The Seahawks’ defense has had a lot to do with this. So has the noise generated by the 12th Man crowd.  

Don’t overlook

Russell Wilson: The Seahawks’ second-year QB is due. After a seven-game stretch where he threw 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions, and had five games where he completed at least 70 percent of his passes while fashioning passer ratings of 98.5, 122.1, 117.6, 91.3, 134.6, 151.4 and 139.6, Wilson has fallen on harder times while working against a quartet of Top 10 defenses during the past five games. As the Seahawks have gone 3-2, Wilson has four TD passes and three interceptions. The current stretch started with the Week 14 game against the 49ers at Candlestick Park. Sunday, Wilson needs to rediscover his productive groove.

Worth noting

This is the first postseason meeting between the Seahawks and 49ers. … The regular-season series is tied 15-15, with the 49ers winning five of the past seven meetings and the Seahawks outscoring the 49ers 139-58 in winning four of the past five games in Seattle. … The 49ers are one of only 12 teams since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to play in the conference championship game in three consecutive seasons; and Jim Harbaugh is the first coach since 1970 to do it in his first three seasons. … Kaepernick is 4-1 in the postseason. … Gore had his seventh season with at least 1,000 rushing yards, a franchise record. … Davis has seven postseason TD catches, tying him with Dave Casper for the most in NFL history by a tight end. … During the regular season, the Seahawks led the NFL in turnovers (39), interceptions (28) and turnover differential (plus-20), as well as average points (14.4), yards (273.6) and passing yards (172.0) allowed. … The Seahawks have a six-game home winning streak in the postseason. … Lynch has 451 rushing yards in the postseason, second in franchise history behind Shaun Alexander (564). … MLB Bobby Wagner (119) and FS Earl Thomas (100) led the Seahawks in tackles.