The 49ers and Seahawks have been considered the best two teams in the NFC in each of the last two seasons. And having split the last two season series, the rivalry has been amplified. It's only fitting they square off Sunday for a chance at the Super Bowl.
Nothing does more for a rivalry than clashes in the playoffs when it's all on the line and the stakes couldn't be any higher. The two teams achieve similar results with contrasting styles. Both feature physical running games complimented by outstanding defenses.
But that's where the similarities end.
The 49ers' base 3-4 defense is highlighted by an outstanding front seven. Their linebackers have all received All-Pro nods over the last two seasons, highlighted by the best inside duo in the league in NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. They are elite on the outside with Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith excelling in setting edges and getting to the quarterback.
The Seahawks attack offenses in an entirely different way. Their traditional 4-3 is complimented by the league's best secondary that has the range to cover the entire field. That speed allows them to stack the box with eight, leaving Earl Thomas responsible to roam like a center fielder. His running mate Cam Chancellor is one of football's most gifted, possessing the size (6-3, 232) to cover tight ends while being a force against the running game. He's routinely less than 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage, enabled by a combination of the scheme and overall talent surrounding him. His presence in the box gives the defense a 4-6 feel.
But the key to the Seahawks' defense lies at corner where Richard Sherman has quickly become the league's best after being taken in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. A former player under current San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh, Sherman has taken to Pete Carroll's coaching to become a candidate for defensive player of the year, along with Thomas.
Carroll preaches physicality that pushes right up to the line of illegal. And it has maximized Sherman's production.
Sherman led the NFL with eight interceptions during the regular season. He allowed just 30 receptions on 59 targets, which makes the fact he managed eight interceptions all the more impressive. He picked off Colin Kaepernick late in Week 2's game when he tried to hit tight end Vernon Davis to seal the win and an ugly performance from San Francisco.
That ugly showing was lowlighted by Kaepernick, who assumes most of the blame because of the position he plays. It doesn't help that two of his worst outings since taking over the starting job midway through 2012 have come at noisy CenturyLink Field.
An apologist would chalk Sept. 15's performance (13 of 29, three interceptions, no touchdowns) to it being the team's first road game of the season. He was also without Michael Crabtree, who has since revitalized the passing attack since missing the season's first 11 games while recovering from a torn right Achilles tendon.
But in reality, Kaepernick had a bad game for an entirely other reason. The offense wasn't executing early in the season. And it wasn't limited to that game. San Francisco struggled and lost to the upstart Colts the following week before being kicked in the teeth again at home by the Carolina Panthers seven weeks later. The offense that was so successful en route to the Super Bowl the previous year had been scouted and game-planned against for an entire offseason. Instead of defenses trying to adjust to Kaepernick after seeing Alex Smith at the helm, they had a sample and six months to work with and prepare for the nuances that made him stand out. Missing Crabtree didn't help, but coordinator Greg Roman's scheme wasn't sneaking up on people like it had in 2012.
Fast forward to Week 11 following a gut-wrenching loss in New Orleans littered with controversy. Kaepernick and the 49ers were kept in the game because of three Saints turnovers. He threw for just 127 yards but San Francisco was still two stops away from getting their first signature win of the season. When Ahmad Brooks sacked Brees and forced a fumble with his team up 20-17, it looked like the 49ers would finally come away with a win over a playoff-caliber team for the first time in 2013. Instead, he was flagged for hitting Brees in the head and neck area with his right forearm, giving the Saints a first down before scoring the game-tying field goal.
The 49ers' offense went three-and-out while taking just 18 seconds off the clock - worsened by Kassim Osgood's 15-yard catch interference penalty on the ensuing punt - allowing Brees ample time to win the game. He did, leading his team 47 yards before Garrett Hartley hit the game-winning kick from 31 yards out as the clock expired.
That was the last time the 49ers lost. It was Nov. 17 - just over two full months ago. Since then, they have won all eight of their games en route to their third straight trip to conference championship. Kaepernick has turned the offense around, running when he needs to while making clutch throws to his suddenly deep group of targets.
In just his second season as starter, Kaepernick has won games in New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, Atlanta and most recently Carolina. He's 3-0 on the road in the playoffs, making him the most successful quarterback in those games in franchise history. Steve Young was 0-3. Joe Montana was 1-3. The key difference, of course, is those two quarterbacks combined to win five Super Bowl rings without a loss while Kaepernick is currently 0-1, coming up just five yards short of beating the Ravens last February.
Many around the Pacific Northwest are tabbing Sunday's tilt the biggest game in Seahawks' history (despite the team's Super Bowl appearance in 2005), meaning the 12th Man will be in full throat, which will make it even tougher on Kaepernick. But having won in Green Bay in frigid conditions and Carolina against one of the league's premier defenses, he didn't seem worried about the home field advantage in Seattle this week.
"I think the biggest thing is you have to realize it's another football game," he said. "There might be more people watching, more at stake, but you go out and execute like you normally do and perform well, you'll win the game."
But while many will make this game about the budding narrative surrounding Kaepernick and Seahawks' quarterback Russell Wilson, the game will likely be won in the trenches. The 49ers offensive line has rebounded from early season mistakes to return to form as one of the league's best during these playoffs. It allowed Kaepernick to step up and make his throws against the Packers and it cleared the way for the running game to dominant the Panthers' talented front seven in the second half in the Divisional Round. Even with all that momentum, Seattle presents the toughest test of the season.
In front of Frank Gore, the 49ers will look to exact their physicality on a defense that hasn't been as good against the run as the pass. Seattle is seventh in rush defense (102 yards per game) and first in pass defense (179.6). San Francisco ran for 167 and 126 in the last two weeks.
When the 49ers beat the Seahawks in November, they ran for 163 yards and passed for 155. The biggest play that day was Gore's gashing run for 51 yards on the final drive leading to the decisive field goal from Phil Dawson from 22 yards out.
When the Cardinals handed Seattle its first home loss in two seasons Dec. 22, Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington ran for 63 and 64 yards respectively. If San Francisco is going to win Sunday, the running game will have to work to a similar effect.
And stopping the run will go along way too. The Seahawks run the ball at nearly an identical clip as the 49ers. Marshawn Lynch finished the regular season with 1,257 yards.
"I think that's where the game comes down to, if they can lighten up the box and run the ball," NaVorro Bowman said. "I think that's what makes us unique. We're able to do that more than other teams and it forces them to do other things. That's the reason why the run the ball so much when we're in nickel, because the box is lighter.
"But if we can stop it, they have to go to another plan."
That other plan involved Russell Wilson and his ability to pass from the pocket. Wilson has been all over the map of late, compiling passer ratings of 86.3, 49.6, 102.1 and 67.6 over his last four games. He threw for just 103 yards on 9 of 18 completions in last week's 23-15 win over the Saints.
In Week 14's 19-17 loss in San Francisco, Wilson threw for 199 yards, a touchdown and a late interception. He completed eight of his first 11 throws for 144 yards. But after San Francisco made its halftime adjustments, Wilson came out and threw for 55 yards in the second half.
The 49ers will look to take away the running game and force Wilson to beat them from within the pocket - which could go a long way toward negating the energy of the crowd (we broke down how to stop the offense here).
Sunday's game will also feature two of the league's best kickers in Phil Dawson (who's made 35 of 36) and Steven Hauschka (33 of 35). Given the physical nature of these defenses, there's a great chance the outcome will be determined by the right foot of one of these kickers.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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