The NFC Championship Game encompasses exactly what a title game should.
The matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers pits two fierce rivals, who are possibly the best two teams in the NFL, against each in a raucous stadium in what should be a physical and immensely entertaining contest. In terms of intensity and what’s at stake, this is likely the most important football game to ever take place in the Pacific Northwest.
The defenses in this game are known quantities. Both teams finished the regular season in the top five in yards against per game. San Francisco has scored 49 total points in its last four games against the Seahawks, but the 49ers have won of two of those contests. With defensive stars all over the field, it shouldn’t take many points to win this game.
That leaves Seattle’s offense as the biggest question mark of the game. The Seahawks’ offense sputtered down the stretch, particularly in losses to the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. It was good enough to wrap up the NFC West title and beat the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round but will need to be better come Sunday.
Here are the three keys for Russell Wilson and company to find success against San Francisco and advance to the Super Bowl.
Run, Run, Run
Make no mistake about it: The team that runs the ball more effectively will win this game. No two teams in the NFL rely more on a run-first offense, and the team that has rushed for more yards has won the last 8 meetings. Frank Gore’s 51-yard run late in the fourth quarter won the last meeting for the 49ers, while Marshawn Lynch’s 3 touchdowns paced Seattle’s blowout in Week 2.
Lynch rushed for 140 yards last week against the Saints, an encouraging sign after failing to reach 100 yards the previous six games. He might not be able to achieve quite that level of success against the 49ers’ fearsome front seven, but a high volume of carries for Lynch in the first half can help wear down any defense. Plus, nothing would get the CenturyLink Field crowd going early like a big, punishing run from Lynch, and San Francisco has had major trouble with the noise its past two trips to Seattle.
Russell Wilson and the Read-Option
There’s a thought that the read-option is all but dead in the NFL, but we will see it have an impact on this game. Just the threat of the quarterback keeping the ball on these option plays will give both defenses something extra to think about.
Just go back to the meeting between the two teams Week 14. Wilson was a total non-factor on the ground finishing with two rushing yards. But the 49ers’ edge rushers were clearly concerned about Wilson running on multiple occasions, which occupied a defender and opened up more space for Lynch. This was most obvious on Lynch’s touchdown run in the second quarter, and that didn’t even come on a read-option play.
Whether by the read-option or otherwise, Wilson does need to make a couple of plays with his legs Sunday. It adds an explosive element to the Seahawks’ offense that has been missing recently, as Wilson has been reluctant to run even when given the opportunity. On the flip side, the Seahawks will need to prevent Colin Kaepernick from any big gains on the ground.
Where Have the Tight Ends Gone?
In Week 14, rookie Luke Willson had his best game as a pro, finishing with 70 yards and a touchdown. On two separate occasions the 49ers tried to cover Willson with linebacker Patrick Willis, and Willis was burned for big gains both times. Willis, of course, is a fantastic linebacker, but Willson’s tremendous speed will challenge any linebacker in coverage.
He has had four catches since that game. Part of that is due to a nasty-looking ankle injury in the regular season finale against the St. Louis Rams, but all reports indicate that Willson should be at full strength Sunday. The Seahawks should look to get him involved on at least a few plays.
Zach Miller will get the majority of snaps at tight end. He doesn’t have nearly the same speed as Willson, but is still a big target for the Seahawks. Miller has had a couple of big games this year – particularly Week 13 against the New Orleans Saints – but has had three or fewer targets four out of the past five games.
If the Seahawks can add Miller and Willson as targets in the middle of the field, it would really open up the field with the athleticism of Golden Tate and Percy Harvin (who has not been cleared to play) on the outside.
Photo Credit: Ben Margot / Associated Press
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