The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks square off Sunday in a rubber match, with the conference title on the line. The squads split their season series, with the Seahawks winning 29-3 in Week 2, and the 49ers winning 19-17 in Week 14.
Much has changed over the course of the season. We had plenty of discussion about the two teams between Week 2 and Week 14. Now it's time to see what changes have happened since Week 14. First up, Danny Kelly from Field Gulls broken down how the Seahawks have changed. After that, I've got a few thoughts on the 49ers changes.
The NFL is a crazy, constantly changing and evolving creature. Performance fluctuates week to week and a team that looks flat on one day can look amazing the next or visa versa. This is probably why weekly Power Rankings are so popular and why narratives can change so drastically every time you turn on the TV. Regardless, in covering the Seahawks over the past three years, one main lesson I've learned is that a whole hell of a lot can change over the course of a season, and frankly, a lot can change in a week depending on injuries and matchups. Relying on past games for predictive value is not super advisable.
For the Seahawks and Niners, we like to talk about Week 14 and Week 2 of this season, and while it's interesting to look back at what happened in those games from an individual matchups perspective, they're probably not too useful in forcasting the outcome on Sunday. There are some differences between the Seahawks of Week 14 and the Seahawks of the present, but personnel wise, not a whole lot has changed.
In Week 14, the Seahawks were without their primary nickel cornerback in Walter Thurmond (suspension) and Brandon Browner was still, at that time, battling a hamstring injury. This week, Thurmond is back, which is a big boost for the defense, and Browner is now suspended, so that doesn't change anything. The Seahawks were still without Percy Harvin in Week 14, so that doesn't change much, and the only question among ‘starting' players is at the left guard position, where it remains to be seen who gets the nod. It'll come down to James Carpenter, who got the start last time, and Michael Bowie, likely, who is coming off his first career start at left guard.
Apart from personnel, there are some subjective and statistical differences, in terms of performance and momentum. Going into Week 14, Russell Wilson was on an absolute tear (140+ rating/11+YPA over past three games), the Seahawks had just dispatched New Orleans on MNF, and the offense was clicking beautifully. Of course, since then, things have taken a downturn on that side of the ball, and much has been made of Wilson's lackluster numbers over the past couple weeks.
On the other hand though, the Seahawks defense is playing some of its best ball of the season. The Hawks just gave up 15 points to the Saints (after limiting Drew Brees 34 passing yards in the first half - his worst passing output in a half as a Saint), and despite a late push by New Orleans, played an overall strong game.
The Week before, Seattle gave up 9 points to the Rams, holding them to 158 total yards and 3.2 yards per play. The week prior, they gave up 17 points, held the Arizona offense to 4.4 yards per play, and picked off Carson Palmer four times in a losing effort. Going back one more week (the week following Seattle's loss in San Francisco), the Hawks shut the Giants out, holding Eli Manning and company to 181 yards and 3.4 yards per play.
Obviously, the solid and stingy play of the Hawks' defense is going to be a big factor this week. If Seattle can continue to play assignment correct football, continue to force turnovers and play with their physical style, it gives their team a chance to win against anybody. If they fall back into some bad habits of over running plays and using poor tackling technique, it could be trouble.
I'm expecting a great game between two tough, hard-nosed teams, and this game is likely to be pretty different in many ways than the ones we've seen in the recent past. I'm really looking forward to it, and hopefully fans on both sides can appreciate how excellent of a matchup this really should be.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have dealt with a variety of injuries this season, and Week 14 provided some examples of both the good and the bad. The game marked Michael Crabtree's second game of the season in his return from a torn Achilles. On the other hand, the 49ers were without cornerback Tarell Brown, left guard Mike Iupati, and third string tight end Garrett Celek. I mention Celek because the 49ers use of extra tight ends is well documented at this point. Celek could be a decent backup option, but even as a third string tight end he sees plenty of action.
Heading into that game, the 49ers had a pair of wins, on the road against Washington in Week 12 and at home against the St. Louis Rams in Week 13. Prior to that, the 49ers had dropped two straight to the Panthers at home and the Saints on the road. The team had the two game win streak going, but it was against an awful Washington team, and a wildly inconsistent Rams team. There was some excitement about getting on the winning track, but the confidence level still had a ways to go. Winning that Seahawks game certainly gave it that kind of boost.
Michael Crabtree had made his return the week before against the Rams, finishing with two catches for 68 yards. The yards total was boosted by a 60-yard catch and run. Crabtree showed off some of his pre-injury moves, but he clearly lacked an extra gear. He's not a generally fast wide receiver, but he looked particularly slow on that play. Against the Seahawks, he would finish with four catches for 40 yards. Crabtree's numbers in the weeks since the Seahawks game:
Week 15 @ TB - 5 receptions, 45 yards, 1 touchdown
Week 16 @ ATL - 5 receptions, 102 yards
Week 17 @ AZ - 3 receptions, 29 yards
WC @ GB - 8 receptions, 125 yards
Divisional @ Car - 3 receptions, 26 yards
He had the two low output games, but in Week 17, Anquan Boldin finished with 149 yards, and in the divisional round Boldin finished with 136 yards. And that really is the most notable difference to the 49ers offense. Adding Crabtree adds a dimension this team has not had under Jim Harbaugh: a third receiving option. In 2011, the 49ers had Crabtree and Davis, with a soon to be finished Braylon Edwards for part of the season. In 2012, the 49ers had Crabtree and Davis, with a soon to be finished Randy Moss. This year, they have Crabtree, Davis and Boldin, which opens up so many more options.
On the defensive side of the ball, Eric Wright is basically out of the picture as a nickel or dime option. Perrish Cox replaced him after his lengthy stint with the Seahawks. Carlos Rogers has been limited all week after missing the last two weeks, so we could see Rogers and Cox rotate on Sunday. Other than that, the defensive rotation is more or less the same.
The 49ers defense gave up some big passing totals to Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer in Weeks 16 and 17, and a relative lack of pass rush had people questioning the group. However, since then the group has settled in and done solid work in the playoffs. They held Aaron Rodgers to 177 yards passing, and although they gave up 267 yards passing to Cam Newton, they sacked him twice on a key drive in the second half, forced two interceptions, and generally caused an ineffective late game performance. The key was mixing things up with a few additional blitzes, which seemed to catch the Panthers off guard.
Last season, the 49ers unleashed the read option on Green Bay after cutting back on it late in the regular season. This year, they broke out a 5-3 goal line alignment against Cam Newton and the Panthers after never using it under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Given what is at stake in this game, I have to imagine Greg Roman and/or Vic Fangio will roll something out to catch the Seahawks off guard. Last week, Roman decided it was time for an Anquan Boldin reverse pass attempt. It didn't succeed, but that and the 5-3 alignment show a team read to do whatever it takes to win. It should make for a fascinating chess match, as I have to imagine the Seahawks coaching staff will be in a similar mode.