The Seahawks head to the Bay Area this weekend looking not only for a fifth straight victory, but also for a return to the postseason, something they would clinch with a win over the 49ers. The Seahawks, who are 4-0 at Levi's Stadium since it opened in 2014, have won 10 straight over the 49ers, postseason included, a streak that includes a 43-16 win just two weeks ago.
If the Seahawks are going to beat the 49ers for the second time in three weeks and clinch their seventh postseason berth in nine seasons under Pete Carroll and John Schneider, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:
1. 49ers tight end George Kittle vs. Seattle's pass defense.
This season has been a struggle for the 49ers, who are 3-10 following last week's win over the Denver Broncos, but one very big bright spot has been the play of second-year tight end George Kittle, who had 210 receiving yards last week, including an 85-yard touchdown. Kittle has 69 catches for 1,103 yards, the second most among tight ends, and his speed makes him a big play threat—in addition to last week's big touchdown, he also as an 82-yard touchdown and a 71-yard catch on his résumé this year.
"He's really good," defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. "He catches a lot of balls. He's a threat. He runs well, he catches well, he runs after he catches, he blocks well. He's a dynamite, sharp, big-time NFL player, so it's going to be a challenge to hold him down."
Kittle had a solid, but not spectacular game against Seattle in Week 13, catching six passes for 70 yards with a long of 28, but whether it's Kittle or anyone else, the Seahawks know they need to play defense more like they did against the Vikings last week than they did against San Francisco two weeks ago when missed tackles contributed to the 49ers netting 386 passing yards.
"Small leaky yardage like that, missing tackles in the flat, those yards after contact, those are game-changing plays in itself," safety Bradley McDougald said. "It might not show up on the stat sheet or on SportsCenter, but those yards add up and flip field position on just screens. Last time we played (the 49ers), they were able to get a lot of yards on screens, so it's still a focus point for us today."
2. Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner vs. pretty much everybody in a 49ers uniform.
A lot of times when it comes to matchups, we think about a defensive player such as Bobby Wagner in terms of how he'll be tasked with trying to stop an opposing offensive weapon, such as the aforementioned Kittle or 49ers running back Matt Breida. But the way Wagner has been playing of late, opponents have to worry about the big plays he might make just as much as the Seahawks have to worry about an opposing offensive player.
Take Wagner's last game against the 49ers, for example. Wagner, who earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for that performance, had 12 tackles, a forced fumble, which he recovered, one sack, and most notably, a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown. The next week, Wagner "only" had eight tackles, but one of those came on a crucial fourth-down stop, and on special teams he hurdled the Vikings' line to block a field goal attempt.
"Bobby Wagner has been the best linebacker in football for at least five years, and I don't think he ever gets enough credit," 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told reporters this week. "I don't think Bobby gets enough credit. There have been years where he probably should have won defensive player of the year… He's impacting the game in so many ways. He's blocking field goals, he's returning picks 98 yards."
Of course Sherman couldn't heap too much praise on his old friend without getting a playful shot in, adding, "He looked kind of fat and didn't have a neck when he did it… The kinds of plays he's making, he had a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a sack, the guy is just all over the field, he makes a ton of tackles. If you're talking about the top five, 10 players in this league, I would expect him to be up there."
3. The turnover battle (again).
Coming into the last matchup between these two teams, the Seahawks and 49ers had pretty similar stats in terms of total offense and total defense, but Seattle had the much better record in large part because of turnover differential. So it wasn't all that surprising when the Seahawks won the Week 13 game by a big margin while enjoying a plus-three advantage in turnover differential, including two takeaways in the red zone, one of which turned into a Seahawks touchdown thanks to Wagner's speed.
Overall this season, the 49ers have gained more yards (365.2 per game to 347.2) and given up fewer yards (343.0 to 360.4) than the Seahawks, yet they also have the league's worst turnover differential (minus 21) while the Seahawks are tied for the second best mark at plus-11, and have scored defensive touchdowns in back-to-back games. And even after Russell Wilson's interception against the Vikings, his first in a month, the Seahawks still have committed the fewest turnovers in the NFL with 10.
"We've just got to play a lot better," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on a conference call. "Obviously you can see what the score was—turning it over and not getting any turnovers. We need to run the ball better and we need to stop their run better. It's pretty much Football 101 in terms of why you win and why to lose."