The Seahawks host the 49ers in the final regular-season game of 2019, a game that will determine the NFC West champion. The Seahawks (11-4), beat San Francisco (12-3) in a wild overtime contest in Week 10, and if they're going to earn an another victory over the 49ers and claim their fifth NFC West title in 10 seasons under Pete Carroll and John Schneider, these are three key matchups that could end up making the difference in Sunday's game:
1. 49ers tight end George Kittle vs. Seattle's pass and run defense.
The Seahawks didn't see George Kittle when these teams met earlier in the season due to an injury, which means they didn't see the same 49ers offense as they'll face on Sunday night. Few tight ends, if any, mean as much to their team as Kittle does to the 49ers offense. Kittle not only leads the 49ers in receiving with 967 yards on 78 catches, he is also a very good blocking tight end, meaning just about everyone on defense will be affected by his presence one way or another.
"He's an amazing player," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He really is. He's a heart and soul guy for them, and a clutch guy, too. They go to him when times are crucial and all that. He's a fantastic player. Not just a catcher, he's a blocker as well. He's a good ball player."
The Seahawks have allowed only two opposing tight ends to go over 100 receiving yards this year—both of those coming against the Rams—and they like the athleticism they have at linebacker to match up with tight ends. Shaquill Griffin's expected return also frees up Akeem King as an option to match up from the nickel spot. The Seahawks have gone with King as their nickel in some other recent games against opponents that feature their tight end in the passing game such as Philadelphia and Minnesota.
Whoever ends up trying to contain Kittle, the Seahawks know they'll have their hands full on Sunday with one of the game's best tight ends.
"He's a special player," defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. "He's versatile. He can block. He can catch, run good routes. Yards after catch. He carries people with him. Has a great attitude about the game. He's a special player… The special players have certain attitudes in how they approach the game. It doesn't take you long to figure out the special ones from the not so special ones. He's certainly a guy that really makes their motor go."
2. A short-handed Seahawks offensive line vs. San Francisco's pass rush.
The 49ers had one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushes for most of the season, but have cooled off of late, recording three sacks in their past four games after piling up 44 through their first 11 games.
That recent drop in production doesn't mean the 49ers don't still present a dangerous challenge when it comes to their front four, and the Seahawks will have to try to hold up against that talented group while playing without left tackle Duane Brown, who will miss a second straight game due to a knee injury. Russell Wilson was sacked five times last week, the fourth time in the past six games he has been sacked five or more times, and while sacks can be the result of a lot of factors, including the play of Wilson himself, the offensive line knows it needs to be on its game this week for the offense to thrive.
The Seahawks have been without starting center Justin Britt for their past seven games, lost Brown last week, then had to play a good portion of last week's game without left guard Mike Iupati, who had a stinger but eventually returned to the game, and at times all that newness caught up to them as Arizona's Chandler Jones recorded 4.0 sacks. But regardless of who is on the field Sunday, the Seahawks know they need to protect better for Wilson and the offense to get the job done.
"I think, for the most part, we struggled in some communication errors, things that we haven't done," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "I mean, we turned Chandler loose on one late in the game—strip sack fumble. We have to be better. We have to communicate better. It starts with me. All the way around, some of it was just our not being on the same page with communication. Another challenge this week that I think we'll be ready for. We're excited to go against this group coming in."
3. The turnover battle.
The Seahawks are among the league leaders in turnover differential this season at plus-12, and when their defense has been at its best this season, the turnovers have come in bunches. The Seahawks, whose 32 takeaways ranks third in the NFL, went five straight games with multiple takeaways prior to last week's loss to Arizona, in which they had none, totaling 16 takeaways from their Week 10 win over the 49ers through their Week 15 win in Carolina.
Like Seattle, the 49ers have been good at forcing turnovers, with 27 this season, but they've also turned the ball over 23 times. The Seahawks haven't been as strong in that area as they were last season, turning the ball over 20 times, including at least one in seven straight games.
Considering how big of a factor turnovers were the last time these teams met—there were a total of seven turnovers, including touchdowns scored by both defenses—it's entirely possible that the game could be decided by a critical turnover or two.