NFC Championship Game Preview: San Francisco-Seattle

The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have been in what has seemed like a Cold War-style arms race since the end of last season. Now it’s come to a head when they battle for the NFC Championship on Sunday evening in the Pacific Northwest (6:30 PM ET, Fox). Here’s the Notebook Nine, our key thoughts to take into the San Francisco-Seattle war…

    • *Our relevant numbers are 42-13 and 29-3. Those were the scores Seattle won by on San Fran’s two previous visits to Century Field. By contrast, the 49ers’ victories in their own home field were close. This suggests that Seattle is better on a neutral field, and that San Francisco has a lot of improving to do just to be competitive in Sunday night’s venue.

    • *Of course it was the 49ers, not the Seahawks, that made the Super Bowl last season, and there’s nothing else in these teams’ resumes that suggest a wide gap. Hence, Las Vegas is playing it safe. Seattle is a cautious 3 ½ point favorite. The Over/Under is 40, so that plays out to a 22-19 final. Let’s just round it to a good football number and say 20-17 or 23-20 Seattle is where Vegas sees this game falling.
    • *For cities on the West Coast, the historical rivalry is surprisingly thin. Until the last two years, the 49ers-Seahawks had never played in big games against each other, and this is their first playoff meeting. There’s no baseball animosity between the two markets, with the Mariners and Giants in separate leagues. When Seattle had the NBA Sonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) there were a couple NBA playoff meetings with Golden State, but both in the early rounds. There’s no epic college football lore between Washington/Washington State and Cal/Stanford. This is a fresh chapter of sports hate that we’re writing here.
    • *Can Colin Kaepernick play consistent and efficient football? Both teams are strong in all phases of the game, and especially on defense. The one exception is that while Kaepernick makes big plays, he’s not very efficient. To win this game he will surely have to execute some move-the-chains throws.
    • *Can Seattle protect Russell Wilson? The Seahawks’ pass protection has left a lot to be desired over the year and they didn’t look particularly in last week’s win over New Orleans. There’s a buzz in the media right now about how the Seahawks tend to play it safe. That might be less a commentary on Wilson then on the ability of the offensive front to give him some time.

  • *When you play defense and run the ball like Seattle does, it often doesn’t matter whether you open up the offense, which begs the question—can San Francisco force the Seahawks to break character? It’s one thing to make some big plays in the passing game off play-action when everyone is respecting the running of Marshawn Lynch. It’s another to do it if you fall behind against a tough defense.
  • *If big plays on offense end up a deciding factor, will Percy Harvin be able to play? The fragile, but explosive, Seahawk receiver, left the New Orleans game with a concussion and has still not been cleared as of Friday morning. Even with Harvin, Wilson still has fewer weapons than Kaepernick. The 49ers come at a secondary with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. All Wilson has is Harvin.
  • *San Francisco’s defense is at its best when outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks turn loose and attack. But that’s a big risk when you have a power back like Lynch that can make big plays if he gets to the second level. Do the 49ers get out of character and respect the run first, or do they play their game and just let it ride?
  • *Is the Pac-12 now the cradle of coaches in the NFL? San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh and Seattle’s Pete Carroll are carrying their rivalry from Stanford-USC. You had Chip Kelly come out of Oregon and have success with the Philadelphia Eagles this year. UCLA boss Jim Mora Jr. is a former (and probably future) NFL head coach. David Shaw, Harbaugh’s successor at Stanford, has an impressive NFL resume as an assistant and could head back to the pros.

I’m picking the 49ers with the points and I’m leaning their way for the outright win. I just feel like San Francisco is the peaking team right now, and have looked the part of Super Bowl favorite far more than top-seeded Seattle has in recent weeks.

My concern is that Kaepernick makes some early mistakes, the game gets away and it turns into another typical Niners-Seahawks game in Century Field. But if Kaepernick gets settled in, he and the rest of the SF offense are much more likely to make the game-changing play than their Seattle counterparts.

Another concern is historical—I also picked New England to win at Denver, and if by some miracle, I was actually right both times, this would make it two years in a row that road teams have swept Championship Sunday, a circumstance that has never happened. In this case though, I’m afraid if I split the difference I’ll just end going the wrong way and finishing 0-2. And there is a first time for everything.