The NFC West champion Seahawks head to Arizona to close out their regular season, though despite the game being at State Farm Stadium, they're not playing the Cardinals. Instead, the Seahawks will be playing the 49ers, who have called Arizona home for the last month due to COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County.
The Seahawks will be looking to earn their 12th win of the season Sunday, and with that keep alive the potential of moving up from the No. 3 seed. If the Seahawks are going to beat the 49ers for a second time this season, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:
1. Russell Wilson, DK Metcalf and the Seahawks passing game against the 49ers pass defense.
The Seahawks didn't have Chris Carson, Carlos Hyde or Rashaad Penny the last time they played, so even with Hyde listed as questionable due to illness, they're much better equipped to run the ball this time. The question then becomes how much do the Seahawks need to rely on that running game against a stout run defense that has held three of its last four opponents under 100 yards?
The Seahawks didn't need a big day on the ground last time around in large part because Russell Wilson and DK Metcalf were so good, with Metcalf recording a career-high 12 catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns, and Wilson throwing for four scores without an interception, posting a 128.3 passer rating.
Metcalf needs only 6 yards Sunday to break Steve Largent's franchise record for receiving yards in a season, but the Seahawks will be looking for him to get quite a bit more than that against a very good 49ers defense.
One way the 49ers could try to slow Metcalf down after such a big game in the previous meeting is to put cornerback Jason Varrett on him more often. Varrett is having a strong season and is coming off a matchup with the Cardinals in which he limited DeAndre Hopkins to five catches for 28 yards on nine targets while covering the Pro-Bowl receiver.
The Seahawks' passing game numbers have come down some from earlier in the season, in no small part because of how teams are defending them, playing more two-deep safety looks to limit the downfield passing game. As Metcalf noted this week, however, doing that could lead to a big day for the ground game.
"It'll be interesting to see how teams try to stop us moving forward," Metcalf said. "If you play two-high, we're going to run the ball, but if you load the box then we'll throw it over your head, so (opposing defense) can pick their poison."
2. 49ers tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk vs Seattle's entire defense
The 49ers are dealing with injuries all over their roster, and will be missing two of their top receivers in Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, but that doesn't mean they don't still have weapons in their offense, particularly in the form of tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, two of the best in the league at their respective positions.
Kittle, like so many of his teammates, has missed significant time this season due to injury, but he came back last week and had four receptions for 92 yards. The Seahawks didn't have Jamal Adams available the last team these teams met, so he likely will be part of the plan for covering Kittle, though that responsibility will also likely fall to linebackers at times, or to nickel corner Ugo Amadi, who worked out with a group of players that included Kittle in Nashville in the offseason.
And much like covering Kittle will be a team effort, so too will dealing with Juszczyk, who is unlike just about any fullback in the league with how the 49ers use him in Kyle Shanahan's offense.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll described the five-time Pro Bowler by saying: "He does everything. He's a great player. He's as meaningful a part of the offense as anybody in the NFL, other than the quarterback position."
3. The turnover battle.
Carroll constantly preaches the importance of taking care of the football for good reason—turnovers frequently decide the outcome of games—and both of these teams can attest to the importance of ball security this season.
The 49ers rank 31st in turnover differential this season at minus-10 not because they can't force turnovers—they have 20 takeaways—but because they've done a bad job of taking care of the football, committing 30 turnovers, the second most in the NFL.
San Francisco won the turnover battle last week, not coincidentally ending a three-game losing streak in the process, and with one turnover in that game, the 49ers ended an eight-game streak of committing multiple turnovers in a game, including nine over the previous three games.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, also have experienced the importance of taking care of the ball this season. In games with zero or one turnover this season, the Seahawks are 11-0, including a turnover-free game against the 49ers in Week 8, but they're 0-4 when committing multiple turnovers, with three of those losses coming on the road.
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