The Playbook: Previewing Broncos-Patriots, Seahawks-49ers
No. 5 San Francisco at No. 1 Seattle — 6:30 p.m. ET (FOX): While the AFC Championship Game could shape up to be a tribute to the beauty of the modern passing game, the third go-round of the 2013 season between these two NFC West rivals will most likely be anything but. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers drive the NFL’s best current rivalry because not only are they built very similarly but also because there are legitimate bad feelings between the two organizations. That sentiment stretches back to when Seattle head coach Pete Carroll ran the USC program and San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh showed up at Stanford in 2007 to make Carroll’s life in the then-PAC-10 far more difficult. One year after Carroll took the Seahawks job in 2010, Harbaugh hit the Bay Area, and their aggravation transferred to the NFL.
Both teams are built on the foundations of a strong run game and amazing defense, with young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick to round things out with the occasional aerial shot play or designed quarterback scramble. These teams are too good, too close and too much alike to feel indifference toward each other. Neither team will use “hate” as a descriptive term, but the energy comes pretty close.
“There is no love lost; there is no love found,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said Wednesday. “That’s how I’d characterize it. It’s going to be intense. It’s going to be physical. I don’t know if there are going to be handshakes after this one.”
The Seahawks and 49ers have split their season series in each of the last two years, with the home team winning every time. In San Francisco, the games have been 13-6 and 19-17 squeakers. In Seattle, they’ve been 42-13 and 29-3 blowouts.
But before anyone in the Emerald City gets overconfident about a repeat performance, two things should be kept in mind. First, the 49ers haven’t lost a game since receiver Michael Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles tendon to play against the St. Louis Rams on Dec. 1. Second, Seattle’s passing offense has been an issue over the last month, and Wilson has thrown just four touchdown passes to three picks in his last five games. In last Saturday’s divisional win over the New Orleans Saints, Seattle left things to running back Marshawn Lynch, and Wilson completed just nine passes for 103 yards. Wilson is more than aware that San Francisco’s defense — specifically its linebackers — presents very specific challenges that affect his run/pass duality.
“They usually have a spy on me,” he said Wednesday. “They always have somebody kind of watching me. And they’re very athletic. So they can make a lot of plays. So just being aware of where they are and what they’re doing. I have a lot of respect for how they play the game and how physical and how fast they are. They’re very intelligent in how they play the game too. We’re going to have to find ways to attack them and take advantage of their weaknesses. They don’t have too many, so you have to play a great football game.”
Kaepernick is equally aware of what Seattle’s league-best defense can do to him — in those two games this season, he completed just over 50 percent of his passes and threw two touchdown passes to five picks. Kaepernick has a miserable history at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, which must change if San Francisco is to buck the odds and win its second straight NFC title.
“He’s not different,” Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said of Kaepernick this week. “I think he’s playing with more confidence now. But their offense is never going to get away from who they really are. We know they want to run the ball and play action off of that, so we’re very prepared on all cylinders.”
As with all other aspects of this ever-interesting rivalry, that applies to both teams. Force, meet force. – Doug Farrar
Chris Burke: Seattle 20, San Francisco 14
Doug Farrar: Seattle 22, San Francisco 21
• Matchup to watch: San Francisco’s receivers vs. Seattle’s cornerbacks.
Michael Crabtree caught four passes (on eight targets) for 40 yards the last time these two teams faced off. It was his second game back from a torn Achilles tendon, so he could provide a more formidable threat against a Seahawks secondary that has no equal in the NFL from right to left.
In addition, Anquan Boldin has been a thorn in Seattle’s side for years, going back to his days with the Arizona Cardinals. Boldin caught six passes for 93 yards against Seattle on Dec. 8, which was payback for the one-catch, seven-yard performance he had on Sept. 15. As Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman recently said, Boldin is contentious enough to take even the best defenders a bit off their game. That happened to the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round, but Sherman is ready if Boldin decides to pop off again.
“We have a disciplined football team that understands the intensity of the moments, and it’s playoff football, so we’ll deal with it well,” Sherman said. “You go out there and compete, and if that’s how he competes, then, yeah, we’ll deal with it. You don’t have to head butt him and do all this crazy stuff to react to him. You know what I’m saying? You slow him down and you stop him. If you don’t want him in your face every day, don’t let him touch the ball.”
It’s possible with a secondary this good, but in Boldin’s case, that’s always easier said than done.
• Pressure’s on: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks.
And the pressure is on both figuratively and literally. Wilson has an unusual amount of composure for a second-year quarterback, but he’s starting to get a bit balky behind a line that has been less than spectacular in pass protection this season. The 49ers sacked Wilson just twice on Dec. 8, but they pressured him far more often, and San Francisco’s linebackers — especially Ahmad Brooks — are on a roll in that department lately.
• This week’s sleeper: Brandon Mebane, DT, Seattle Seahawks.
As much speed and talent as Seattle’s defense has, it doesn’t go if Mebane, the primary nose tackle, isn’t holding the point and drawing double-teams on just about every play. He’s less a pass-rusher than 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith, but Mebane is no less important to what the Seahawks do. He’s one of the league’s best run-stoppers, and he gets more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than people think.
• Rookie spotlight: Luke Willson, TE, Seattle Seahawks.
Neither the Seahawks nor the 49ers have many impact rookies in their 2013 draft classes, but Willson caught 20 passes for 272 yards and a touchdown this season, and three passes for 70 yards and a score when the Seahawks and 49ers last faced off. Not only is the fifth-rounder from Rice an asset in Seattle’s heavy percentage of two-tight end sets, but also he’s an expert blocker, especially on lag plays where he heads from one side of the formation to the other. Seattle’s offensive line will need all the help it can get. – DF