The Seahawks are playoff bound, but first they have one last regular season game on the schedule, Sunday's game at San Francisco. While the Seahawks (9-5-1) are NFC West champs and playoff bound for the fourth consecutive season, the 49ers have struggled this year on the way to a 2-13 record, though as last week's victory over Los Angeles showed, the 49ers can still be a dangerous opponent despite their losing record.
If the Seahawks are going to head into the postseason on a high note, here are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game at Levi's Stadium:
1. The Seahawks defense vs. an improved Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers have made a change at quarterback since these teams met in Week 3, but that doesn't mean the Seahawks aren't familiar with the player who will be leading the 49ers offense. Colin Kaepernick, who has started seven games against Seattle, postseason included, is back in the starting role, and he's still a dual-threat quarterback capable of making big plays with his arms and his legs.
"The guy can still run, still has a powerful arm, still presents the same challenges that he always has," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "When he decides to break the pocket and get first downs, earn first downs with his legs, he is still as dangerous as they come in the NFL."
Kaepernick had some up-and-down performances after returning to the starting role in October, but he is coming off two strong outings, throwing four touchdowns and one interception over the past two games while completing 69 percent of his pass attempts. Kaepernick's improved play, as well as his being more of a rushing threat than Blaine Gabbert, the starter when these teams played earlier in the year, will provide a tough test for the Seahawks defense.
"He looks a little bit more confident in his throws," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "The first time we played them, they ran some zone stuff but like I don't think Gabbert kept it that much, and if he did he's not the athlete that Kaepernick is so that's not really something they want to do. You can see that they really utilize his legs with Kaepernick, whether it's trying to get him out the pocket try to get him running… We've got to be prepared for him to run the ball. We feel like if we do a great job in coverage that's what he's going to do. We feel like we have the athletes to track him down."
Added Seahawks coach Pete Carroll "The big change is the quarterback for sure. Colin has looked really effective. He's back to playing comfortably and running and throwing and scrambling and all that stuff. He's averaging over 7 yards a carry, he's got a pretty good passer rating, touchdowns and interceptions is really good. All that stuff. He's that threat again that he has been in the past… That's what catches my attention is that Colin is back doing the stuff that he knows how to do and he really looks effective."
2. A Seahawks run game looking to get back on track vs. a struggling 49ers run defense.
It has been an up-and-down season for Seattle's ground game, and the Seahawks would love nothing more than to get their rushing attack back on track before the playoffs. The Seahawks recently had a four-game stretch in which they averaged 163.8 rushing yards-per-game and 6.1 yards-per-carry, but they managed just 150 yards combined in the past two games.
"We expect to run the football, we're going for it," Carroll said, "We need to get the ball moving on the ground, we definitely want to do that."
If the Seahawks want to get their running game going, this week should represent a good opportunity to do just that, as the 49ers rank last in the NFL in run defense, allowing 171.1 rushing yards-per-game.
It should also help the Seahawks that Thomas Rawls is expected to play after missing the second half of last week's game with a shoulder injury. Injuries to Russell Wilson and Rawls have been a big factor in the run-game struggles this season, so having Rawls on the field along with a healthy Wilson should make a difference.
"We love it when he's in there," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said of Rawls. "We have a different mentality and feel about us. He runs downhill, he's violent, he sees things well and he punishes the defense, so it brings a different mentality to us when he's in there. I think teams have to play for that. I definitely love having him in there."
3. 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner vs. left side of Seahawks line.
While the 49ers have struggled on defense this season, allowing the most points and yards of any team in the NFL, one bright spot has been the play of DeForest Buckner, the defensive lineman from Oregon who was the seventh-overall pick in this year's draft.
Buckner, who primarily lines up on the right side of San Francisco's defense, will provide a major test for left tackle George Fant and left guard Mark Glowinski. Buckner plays nearly every snap, and has been a handful for opposing offenses, recording 71 tackles and 6.0 sacks, which is tied for the team lead. Three of those sacks have come in the past three games, including an 11-tackle, two-sack performance against the New York Jets.
"His progression has been awesome," 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil told Bay Area reporters this week. "Early on he had to learn how to get his pads down and now you see him dominating at the line of scrimmage and knocking guys back, instead of stalemating or getting knocked back.
"I don't know how he's not going to be considered for the defensive rookie of the year. If you look at his numbers compared to every defensive tackle in this league, he leads the NFL in tackles for all defensive tackles. He's at the top in sacks. He's played the most plays of any defensive tackle in the NFL. He has done an unbelievable job."
Get to know the faces of the San Francisco 49ers offensive and defensive units heading into the team's Week 3 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.