After watching his team again lose a game in was in position to win, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of his team's close losses and missed opportunities: "I don't want that to be the story of this season."
At 4-5, the Seahawks know the margin of error is slim going forward if they're going to make those near misses a footnote on a successful season and not what defined a disappointing one, and getting things turned around starts with Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers. Here are three key matchups that could decide Sunday's game:
1. Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks running game vs. 49ers run D.
Is it cliché to say it starts with the running game for Seattle? Probably. But when it comes to facing the 49ers, getting the ground game going has been such an important part of the Seahawks' recent success in the rivalry. Just look at last month's meeting when Lynch carried nine times on Seattle's first possession, which resulted in a touchdown. Lynch, who finished that game with a season-best 122 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, is officially listed as questionable with an abdominal injury, but Carroll expressed optimism Friday that his Pro Bowl back will be ready to go. Even if Lynch is limited or can't play, expect Thomas Rawls and the rest of Seattle's backs to be a big part of the game plan, as Seattle has had success pounding the ball against the 49ers in recent years. Dating back to 2011, Lynch has gone over 100 yards six times in 10 games against San Francisco, playoffs included, with Seattle winning the past four such games. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle notes, the 49ers have allowed just seven 100-yard rushers in 71 games against the rest of the league over that span. https://twitter.com/Eric_Branch/status/667766503605796864
"It's the number one key in the game," 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said on a conference call with the Seattle-area media. "He's their guy. If the run is working, it kind of balances out the pass and allows Russell (Wilson) to do what he does. So that's our number one goal is to stop the run. If we do that, we'll have a shot."
2. Seahawks defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril vs. an O-line that struggled to block them in the last meeting.
Cliff Avril had 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble when the Seahawks played the 49ers last month, and he wasn't even the most effective pass rusher on his own team that evening, not with Michael Bennett collecting 3.5 sacks and four QB hits. As is the case when the Seahawks' pass rush is at its best, Bennett and Avril played off of each other in that game, wreaking havoc on against the right side of San Francisco's line.
"I think the big thing with me and Mike is I understand what type of rusher he is, and he understands what type of rusher I am," Avril said. "We just naturally know how to play off of each other. I know that sometimes, depending on the look or the protection that they give us, I know what he's going to probably do. I can play off of that if I need to, if my rush isn't working. It just comes with time and experience, to be honest with you, and I guess a little bit of luck too."
Avril said he expects they'll see some different looks from the 49ers this time around, but whatever San Francisco does, they'll need to protect Blaine Gabbert better or else a change at quarterback won't make much difference for an offense that managed just a single field goal against Seattle last month.
"Obviously Seattle's got some really good pass rushers," 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said on a conference call. "Nothing but respect for their team and their players. Those guys were getting after it. Number one, we've got to block better than they rush. We've got to get in front of them, not let them have edges and sort out any of the games and things that they're doing. They do some good stuff. We've got to do that and the other thing is try and make sure that you don't put yourself in third-and-12-plus situations."
3. 49ers WR Torrey Smith vs. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, Round 2.
Torrey Smith has been the 49ers best receiver this season and their big-play threat—he averages 21.4 yards per catch—but against Seattle, Smith was targeted only once and did not have a catch. The reason for Smith's quiet day was that he was being shadowed throughout the game by Seattle's All-Pro corner Richard Sherman. There has been no confirmation from Sherman or his coaches that sticking with Smith is in the gameplan again this week, but if it is, one team's best playmaker against another team's top cover-corner will be fun to watch.
Of course, shutting down one player isn't always enough, and the Seahawks have other coverage issues to concern themselves with on Sunday. In losses this season, and particularly late in those games, opposing offenses have found ways to beat Seattle's secondary with big plays.
"It's just the fact of we've broken down in areas where we haven't done so before," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "Really, it's something that's easily fixable. We just have to make sure we lock in and just do our job longer, do our job better. We can't go out there and look to make someone else's play. We have to be what we're supposed to be, and the ball will come to us. As soon as you go out there and you start hunting for other people's opportunities, that's when mistakes happen."