After losing the NFC Championship game in 2011 and then the Super Bowl in 2012, the natural progression for the San Francisco 49ers would be to finally climb the mountain and win the Lombardi Trophy this season. But getting that deep into the playoffs for a third straight year will be difficult, especially in a conference that is loaded with talent. The 49ers will have their work cut out for them throughout the NFC, however, the biggest threat to another Super Bowl run could be within their own division.
The Seattle Seahawks may very well be the team standing between the 49ers and their sixth championship. The Seahwaks are a balanced team, built in a very similar fashion to the 49ers themselves. Both teams win games with a powerful running game, a stout defense, and an athletic quarterback who can almost seem impossible to defend at times.
To understand just how close these teams are to each other, one only has to look at their past match ups. In the Jim Harbaugh era, the 49ers are 3-1 against Seattle but that record doesn’t tell the whole story. The 49ers and Seahawks squared off in Harbaugh’s first game to open the 2011 season and the contest was close late before Ted Ginn broke a kickoff and punt return for two fourth quarter touchdowns. The returns turned a tight 19-17 game into a 33-17 49er win. The teams met again at Seattle in week 16 and the 49ers pulled out a 19-17 win with a late David Akers field goal.
Moving on to 2012, the 49ers won a sloppy Thursday night game at home 13-6. Other than a crisp drive to open the second half by the then Alex Smith led offense, the game was a defensive battle. The second matchup saw Seattle route the 49ers 42-13. While Seattle dominated every phase of the game, the 49ers were playing the second of back to back prime time road games and had just come off a wild win at New England. They were also without defensive stalwart Justin Smith who was injured the week before.
Looking ahead to 2013, the Seahawks look every bit a formidable as the 49ers again. If Seattle had a weakness, it was lack of explosion in the passing game. They added that element with an offseason trade for Percy Harvin. Harvin can move all over the field and cause opposing defenses nightmares. He also makes Golden Tate and Sidney Rice better as they will get less attention as secondary options.
Seattle also features a strong running game that is able to gain yardage on the 49ers the way no other team can. San Francisco is one of the best defenses in the league at stopping the run but power backs, like Marshawn Lynch, tend to give the team problems. In the last 32 regular season games, the 49ers have only allowed a running back to get 100 yards rushing in a game four times. Lynch has accounted for three of those four. The other was Steven Jackson who has a similar running style.
Defensively, Seattle has not allowed the San Francisco offense more than 19 points in the last four meetings (not counting Ginn’s two return touchdowns). Both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick struggled to get the ball in the end zone and Seattle’s big, physical secondary proved to be a tough match up for the 49ers. Leading Receiver Michael Crabtree has only averaged 46 yards a game over the last two seasons against Seattle. One of the reasons Anquan Boldin was such a big pick up for San Francisco was that his physical style will be an asset in a match up with the Seahawks.
While Seattle looks balanced across the board, the real key to their success will be second year quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson surprised everyone in the NFL in 2013 by not only winning the starting job over Matt Flynn, but playing at a high level. Wilson played relatively well in his first eight games, leading the Seahawks to 4-4 record and throwing 10 touchdown passes to 8 interceptions. However, over the next eight regular season games, Wilson took off and Seattle went 7-1. In those final eight contests, Wilson threw 16 touchdown passes to only 2 interceptions.
Teams will have made adjustments to Wilson (as well as Kaepernick) and it will be up to the young quarterback to adapt. Wilson, along with the rest of the Seahawks, was substantially better at home that he was on the road. At home, Wilson threw 17 of his 26 touchdowns and was only intercepted twice. The team was 8-0. On the road his touchdown/Interception ration was almost 1:1 at 9/8. The Seahawks were 3-5 away from Qwest Field.
The home/road splits for Seattle are concerning especially when you consider one of their road wins was played at a neutral site in Toronto (even though its counted as a home game for the Buffalo Bills). Under current head coach, Pete Carroll, the Seahawks are 8-16 on the road compared to 17-7 at home. By contrast, the 49ers are 11-5 on the road under Jim Harbaugh and 13-2-1 at home. It’s this trend that could prove to be the difference in the division.
While Seattle has a decisive home field advantage, going undefeated at home a second year in a row will be difficult. Even a 6-2 home record could cost them the division if their play away from home does not improve.
Even with the discrepancy between home and away, the Seahawks are still one of the top rosters in the NFL and have as good a chance as any team to win their division and still be playing late into January. Should the 49ers be worried? Big picture wise, not anymore worried than they should be about, say, the Atlanta Falcons or Green Bay Packers. As far as the division, the games against Seattle will take on increased importance because even one loss can be the deciding factor.
Even though the Seahawks pose a definite threat, the 49ers are still the team to beat going into the season in the NFC. If San Francisco plays their game and stays healthy, they should be playing meaningful games in January regardless of Seattle.
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/US Presswire
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