3TFO: 49ers @ Seahawks, NFC Championship
In what many prognosticators predicted when training camp opened back in July, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will meet on Sunday to decide who represents the NFC in two weeks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The 49ers are coming off their second consecutive playoff road victory, a 23-10 defeat of the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers.
After earning a bye with their No. 1 seed, the Seahawks handled the New Orleans Saints once again last week 23-15 in the wind and rain at CenturyLink Field.
These teams split their season series, each winning at home. Here are three things to watch as the Seahawks attempt to wrestle the title away from the defending NFC champion 49ers.
49ers Receivers vs. Seahawks Secondary
It’s no secret that the Seahawks sport the best secondary in football, led by first-team All-Pros Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Sherman has allowed just a 47.3 passer rating when targeted this season, which was best among all qualifying cornerbacks. Right behind him was Byron Maxwell, who has performed extremely well since entering the starting lineup, with a passer rating allowed of 47.8.
What’s even more impressive about Sherman’s numbers is that he was targeted only 58 times during the regular season, yet still led the league with eight interceptions. He intercepted 13.8% of the throws that came his way, an astounding figure.
Combine that with safeties Earl Thomas (+11.1 coverage grade, 67.6 passer rating allowed) and Kam Chancellor (+4.5 coverage grade, 63.6 passer rating allowed) and you have a secondary that has put the clamps down on most passing offenses it has faced this season.
With Michael Crabtree now close to full health along with Anquan Boldin, the 49ers sport a stronger receiving unit than in either of their two previous meetings this season. Crabtree did play in the Week 14 matchup at Candlestick; however it was just his second game back as he was working his way up to speed and he was held to four catches for 40 yards.
Since Crabtree’s return to health, it’s been a “pick your poison” situation for opposing defenses. Crabtree and Boldin have alternated 100+ yard receiving games the last four weeks. Prior to that streak, no 49ers wide receiver had over 100 yards receiving since Anquan Boldin did so back in Week 1.
While this matchup still favors the Seahawks’ secondary, this is the strongest the 49ers receiving corps has been in quite some time and should give Colin Kaepernick more opportunities to make plays than in previous visits to Seattle.
Marshawn Lynch vs. 49ers Run Defense
While the Seahawks can claim the best secondary in the league, the 49ers may have the best front seven in all of football. Their task this week is to try and stop Marshawn Lynch, one of the most physical backs in the game.
Including Saturday’s victory over New Orleans, Lynch has forced 99 missed tackles on the season, 22 more than LeSean McCoy who is second on the list. Lynch also finished as the first runner up just behind Adrian Peterson in our Elusive Rating stat.
The 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher the entire season. However, Lynch was the closest when he ran for 98 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries in the Week 2 game in Seattle. Free agent pickup Glenn Dorsey has been a pleasant surprise for the 49ers in their base package. Dorsey’s +12.1 grade against the run ranks ninth among all defensive tackles, and his 10.4 Run Stop Percentage is fifth among interior linemen.
At the second level, Lynch will have to deal with the inside linebacker tandem of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who for the second time in three seasons finished one-two in our inside linebacker rankings.
It will be up to Lynch to grind out yardage on first and second downs to keep Russell Wilson from having to face many 3rd-and-long situations against the 49ers’ pass rush.
49ers Offense vs. CenturyLink Field
The Seahawks have the best home field advantage in the league by a wide margin. The boisterous crowds, combined with the acoustics of CenturyLink Field, provide a deafening atmosphere for opposing offenses.
For the 49ers to advance to their second consecutive Super Bowl, their offense is going to have to find a way to execute and make plays in an extremely hostile environment, while limiting turnovers and pre-snap penalties. Colin Kaepernick has only thrown 11 interceptions in his career during the regular season. However, four of them have come in his two games in Seattle.
The 49ers came out in Week 2 vs. Seattle with a strong drive on their second possession, advancing to the Seattle 5-yard line before Kaepernick was intercepted in the end zone, ending the drive. The 49ers never got any momentum going after that and the offense only was able to put up a second-half field goal while going down to a 29-3 defeat.
Another important factor is the tendency of the 49ers’ offense to bleed every second of the play clock. The 49ers often call two plays in the huddle and will switch up at the line of scrimmage after getting a peek at the defensive alignment. While it often gets you the look you want against the defense, it’s also caused several delay of game penalties and burned time outs over the course of the season.
The 49ers may have to limit what they do in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage on Sunday. The Seahawks’ defensive line, led by Michael Bennett (+20.9 pass rush grade), along with Cliff Avril (+14.4), Clinton McDonald (+8.9), and Chris Clemons (+1.4) has one of the best pass rushes in the league and they are already getting a head start on the opposing offensive line due to the crowd noise. If the 49ers back themselves up into long down-and-distance situations due to false starts or fall behind due to turnovers and become one dimensional, their offensive line is going to have a very difficult time keeping Kaepernick upright.
This is exactly what happened in Week 2, as Joe Staley (-3.0), Mike Iupati (-6.3), and Anthony Davis (-4.0) all had their worst games of the season. The 49ers will have to limit their mistakes, and like the Seahawks, run the ball effectively on first and second down to setup makeable third-down conversions for Kaepernick and the 49ers offense.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @PFF_Jeff