The 49ers and Seahawks rivalry didn't fully get legitimized as perhaps the best in the NFL until the two teams squared off when it mattered most in January's conference title game.
That game in Seattle did not disappoint, proving to be one of the most entertaining and dramatic of any from last season. Unfortunately for San Francisco, the 23-17 loss meant a third-straight season of late-season heartbreak.
Ten months later, the two teams square off again. This time they play on a short week in front of one of the largest television audiences the NFL will get all year on Thanksgiving night. More importantly, both teams are 7-4 and fighting for their playoff lives in a crowded playoff race in the NFC as they trail the division leading Arizona Cardinals by two games.
We reached out Rob Rang, who covers the Seattle Seahawks for the Scout Network, to seek his insights on the defending champions. Here's how that conversation went:
Niners Digest: Rob, is everything reportedly going on with Marshawn Lynch behind the scenes real or media contrived? What is his future beyond this season in Seattle in your opinion?
Rang: As you’ve no doubt noticed, Lynch has a unique personality. That fact likely has little to do with whatever financial decision the Seahawks make regarding their star running back after the season, which is counter to some of the reports out there.
[Related: Kaepernick not thinking about Sherman]
The concern with Lynch – as with most players – is health and salary. Lynch’s has battled through various injuries this season. He is running as hard (and effectively) as ever but given his fierce running style, there is concern that when time catches up to him, the drop-off in production will be steep.
Lynch is signed through the end of next season with a relatively palatable contract given his importance. He’s due five million and in position to earn another two million in bonuses. Several key Seahawks are entering free agency next year, including, of course, Russell Wilson, who will likely command the biggest deal in franchise history. The money to reward Wilson and other Seahawks has to come somewhere. Given the relatively short shelf-life of running backs in today’s NFL, as well as the second round investment two years ago in Christine Michael, logic says that Lynch could, in fact, be playing his final year with the Seahawks, as some have suggested.
That said, should Lynch continue playing at a high level and the Seahawks make a significant playoff run, it could be too much of a risk for a franchise that might again be a Super Bowl contender in 2015. I’d call it 50-50 at this point.
ND: With middle linebacker Bobby Wagner back, how has the defense improved specifically? Was his absence the biggest reason for the defense not playing up to its high standard earlier this season? And can the same be said for strong safety Kam Chancellor and his health issues this year?
Rang: While Wagner was out, normal outside linebacker K.J. Wright was moved to the middle. At 6-4, 246 pounds, Wright has the size and strength to set the edge, as well as fluidity for coverage but he’s not as instinctive or as reliable a tackler as Wagner. Chancellor, like Wagner, is an especially valuable member of Seattle’s defense because of his instincts and physicality. The healthy return of both last week against Arizona were critical in Seattle’s win.
As helpful as the return of Wagner and Chancellor were for Seattle, the loss of nose guard Brandon Mebane to a season-ending hamstring tear three weeks ago has left the Seahawks more vulnerable to interior running. Longtime Minnesota Vikings star Kevin Williams has stepped up in Mebane’s absence.
ND: How important was last week’s win over Arizona? So much is made of a team “getting its swagger back.” Is that just a cliche that people like to use about Seattle or is there some merit to that idea entering Thursday coming off that win?
Rang: The Seahawks allowed seven sacks and scored just one touchdown against the Cardinals so there shouldn’t be too much swagger. That said, the defense played as well as it had all year long and the team is healthier now than it has been in weeks, given the return of Wagner and Chancellor. Starting left guard James Carpenter is likely to return this week, as well.
As far as the importance of the victory over Arizona, it certainly could qualify as the spark Seattle needs to return to the playoffs as long as the winning streak continues. It was only Seattle’s second divisional game after losing to St. Louis October 19.
Given the close standings in the NFC (other than the South), at this late point in the season, every divisional game is critical.
ND: With so much of the Seahawks' offense predicated on the success of Lynch, how much has the offense evolved, and how much has Russell Wilson improved this year? The numbers say his level of play hasn’t changed too dramatically in 2014. Is that what you’re seeing?
Rang: The Seahawks have used more read-option between Wilson and Lynch this season with Wilson showing more aggression to use his legs. Like his first two years in the league, he’s generally been accurate but has notably missed a few wide-open targets in 2014 – including a couple of potential scores.
[Related: Johnson wants to be 49ers’ X-factor]
Last year’s the Seahawks receiving corps was often described as pedestrian but it was better than the sum of its parts. While many cite the trade of Percy Harvin, the free agent defection of Golden Tate has been the bigger loss to Seattle’s offense. More than any receiver currently on Seattle’s roster, Tate possessed a combination of agility, acceleration and physicality that made him as likely to make a big catch as a critical block for teammates.
Last year, Wilson effectively beat safeties cheating up to slow Lynch with deep passes. The Seahawks haven’t been as effect in that regard this year, with Wilson’s inaccuracy, marginal playmaking ability from the receivers and inconsistencies in pass protection all playing a role.
ND: How would you qualify the Seahawks' hangover effect from last year’s Super Bowl run? Does it exist? Do you believe it played any role in their four losses or were other more tangible factors at play?
Rang: Frankly, I expected to see more of a Super Bowl hangover than I’ve seen. It seemed to me that it was simply human nature for a team to take a step back after winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history.
From my perspective, at the least, the Seahawks preparation and toughness has been every bit as impressive this year as last. Free agent losses and injury have certainly taken a significant toll but the real difference this season has been their opponents.
The Seahawks losses this season come courtesy of the Chargers, Cowboys, Rams and Chiefs – four teams notorious for running hot and cold. In seasons past, the Seahawks might have seen a less-focused version of these and other clubs. That hasn’t been the case this year. As San Francisco certainly knows well (in football as well as baseball), repeating is even more difficult than winning it the first time. Everyone wants to knock the champs off the pedestal.