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NFL Playoff Preview: NFC Championship
By Matt Horkman

For the fifth time in the last 21 years, the participants in a conference championship are divisional foes. You would expect the home teams to hold an overwhelming advantage, but it’s actually an even split.

In the 1992 season, Buffalo defended their home turf by beating Miami. Pittsburgh did the same against Baltimore in 2008. In 1999, Tennessee won in Jacksonville, and in 2010, Green Bay beat Chicago to win the NFC title.

It can be overkill watching two teams play for the third time, but given the fact that Seattle and San Francisco are the two best teams in the conference, it seems fitting they’d meet for the right to play in the Super Bowl. 

Evenly Matched

Neither Seattle nor San Francisco possesses a significant advantage over each other. Both teams play similar styles, as they both pride themselves on their toughness, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

The Seahawks feature the most physical secondary in football. They use their size and speed to bully wide receivers downfield. Nobody does this as well as Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. He is the best cornerback in football, and maybe the best defensive player in the game. Sherman is incredibly long. In other words, he has long arms, which alloRichard Shermanws him to get his hands on defenders and disrupt routes. As a result, the timing between quarterback and receiver is off, resulting in poor passes. This mentality doesn't just apply to Sherman, though. This is how the Seahawks’ secondary plays. A big part of this game will depend on how aggressive the officials are in ruling pass interference. Seattle led the league with 13 pass interference penalties, but many believe that number should have been higher.

Regardless, their defensive philosophy is working and it was on display twice against the New Orleans Saints. The Saints rely a lot on timing to run their offense. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is one of the best rhythm passers in football. He finished the year completing an NFC best 68.6 percent of his passes. However, in two games against Seattle, the all-pro quarterback completed just 58.2 percent of his passes. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn’t fare much better. Unlike Brees, Kaepernick doesn’t complete a high-percentage of his passes. His 58.4 completion percentage is pedestrian by today’s standards. Nevertheless, even that number drops when playing the Seahawks. The 49ers signal caller completed just 49 percent of his passes against Seattle’s vaunted secondary, including an awful 13-for-28 (46.4 percent) performance in a week two meeting between these teams.

While Seattle does it with their secondary, the 49ers get it done with their front seven. The 49ers are the only team in the NFL that did not allow 100-yard rusher this season, though Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch came close in week two with 98. In addition, San Francisco doesn’t give much leeway against the pass, either. They actually finished the year No. 7 defending the pass and were one of five teams to allow less than 20 touchdown passes.

Simply put, these defenses don’t bend or break. They stop the pass, run, and they pressure the quarterback. These are two similarly built defenses with similarly built offenses to match. In fact, in the last four games of this rivalry, both Seattle and San Francisco have an identical 1,151 yards of total offense. That's an average of 287.75 yards per game. 

It doesn’t get any more even than that.

New-Breed Quarterbacks

Over the last few seasons, more dual-threat quarterbacks are rising to the top of the NFL. The two quarterbacks in this game are the embodiment of that shift or so that's what the talking heads on television, sports radio, and blogs are suggesting. The truth is a tad bit more complicated. Younger quarterbacks today are certainly more mobile, but Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson simply do a great job of playing within the system. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady both do the same thing. So did Joe Montana. This development is not isolated to just the last three years. 

Between Kaepernick and Wilson, it’s the quarterback donning red and gold that fits the narrative the media is attempting to tell.

Wilson is a mobile quarterback, but he is not a run-first quarterback. He uses his legs to extend a play or scramble when a play breaks down, but he always keeps his eyes downfield. He's still a bigger threat throwing the ball than he is running it. He is as much Rodgers as he is Michael Vick. Frankly, this is what separates him from most of his counterparts. Most young, mobile quarterbacks look to run, especially when defenses force them outside the pocket. Wilson doesn't, though. Early into his rookie season, he developed a keen awareness for knowing when to run or throw the ball away. He picks his spots well.

Kaepernick, alternatively, is much closer to the profile the media is trying to tell. Unlike Wilson, if a play breaks down, Kaepernick looks to run instead of keeping his eyes downfield. Each style has its strengths and weaknesses. Because of his running, Kaepernick is more likely to take hits, though San Francisco’s play calling does its best to protect him. He’s also more prone to miss a big play downfield. Still, his scrambling makes him more difficult to defend. When a defense turns its back to him, it risks allowing a 20-yard run. This is what happened to Green Bay late in the fourth quarter earlier this postseason.

Seattle will definitely try to confine Kaepernick to the pocket. This is a no brainier for them, as they have the secondary to matchup with San Francisco’s pass catchers.

The 49ers, meanwhile, should have little problem defending Wilson. In fact, in four games versus the 49ers, Wilson has yet to throw over 200 yards. 

Patience

Because they lack production from the air, Seattle relies heavily on their running game. In fact, both teams do. The 49ers and Seahawks ranked 31 and 32 in pass attempts this season.

There might be running backs that are more explosive in the NFL, but you would have a difficult time finding a more physical runner between the tackles than Lynch. He has been productive, especially at home, against San Francisco’s outstanding front seven. In his last two homes games versus the 49ers, Lynch is averaging 104.5 rushing yards per game. He isn't doing it in large chunks, though.

In a home victory over San Francisco last year, Lynch ran the ball 26 times. In a home victory over San Francisco earlier this year, he carried it 28 times. The Seahawks do an outstanding job of staying patient with the running game, even if it isn't churning out five yards a carry.

Patience with the running game may decide the outcome of this game. It has the previous four. In their last two victories over Seattle, the 49ers attempted 65 combined runs. Seattle attempted just 52. In Seattle’s two victories, they attempted 86 runs to San Francisco’s 39.

In an era of passing, Seattle and San Francisco play a throwback style. The team that stays with it longer will likely advance to Super Bowl XLVIII. 

Coaching Matchup

Part of this rivalry’s charm is the fact the two coaches don’t care for each other very much.

Seattle head coach Pete Carroll got his first NFL head-coaching job with the New York Jets in 1994. He got the Jets off to a good start (6-5), but everything changed after a last-second loss to Miami in week 13. That defeat set in motion a five-game losing streak for Carroll and the Jets opted to go in a different direction after the season. Carroll did re-emerge briefly in New England, but the Patriots regressed each year under him. Despite his early failures in the NFL, he wound up having great success with USC, where he led the Trojans to the 2003 AP national championship and 2004 BCS national championship.
Jim Harbaugh
In his later years at USC, Carroll developed a rivalry with Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh. In 2007, USC was the No. 2 ranked team in the country, but they lost 24-23 to Harbaugh and Stanford. USC returned the favor in ‘08 with a 45-23 victory, but the rivalry really took off in ‘09 when Stanford beat USC 55-21 at the L.A. Coliseum. After the game, Carroll accused Harbaugh of running up the score because Stanford attempted (and failed) a two-point conversion with a 48-21 lead. It was the last meeting between the two coaches until Harbaugh took the 49ers’ job in 2011. Since then, he holds a 4-2 record over Carroll.

Despite their perceived distain for each other, both have brought an energetic atmosphere to their franchises. The two teams have also taken on their coach’s personality.

Perhaps that’s why these two teams don’t like each other. 

And the Winner Is…

You can expect a tough, physical football game with a lot of hitting and talking. That’s what these teams do. It’s what got them this far.

The 49ers are coming off back-to-back road wins and are looking to become the fourth team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl by winning three playoff games on the road. The Seahawks are hoping to be the first No. 1 seed from the NFC to reach the Super Bowl since the ‘09 Saints.

Because they’re divisional rivals, it’s going to come down to whichever team does a better job executing their game plan. Neither team will catch the other off guard, as they simply no too much about each other. Turnovers will also play a key role.

The 49ers must make sure Kaepernick doesn’t force his throws. He did an excellent job against Carolina of avoiding the early turnover. He’ll need to display similar patience against Seattle, who forced a league-high 39 turnovers. The Seahawks need to ride Lynch throughout the game. He may not get a bunch of yards early, but Lynch is a powerful runner, and he can wear down San Francisco’s defense. 

The Seahawks may have peaked too early, though. They were playing their best football in early December when they thumped New Orleans 34-7. The 49ers, meanwhile, seem to be peaking right now. Their win in Green Bay was impressive, but going to Carolina and outmuscling the Panthers was the most impressive performance of last weekend.

You cannot discount home-field advantage tipping the scale in Seattle’s favor, but this’ll be a slugfest. Under those circumstances, there’s no better coach than Harbaugh and no better team than San Francisco.

49ers 14 Seahawks 10

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