Nothing else matters this weekend.
Not draft talk. Not college football. Not Alabama getting revenge over Texas A&M.
There’s nothing else I want to write about tonight other than Seahawks vs 49ers.
The teams are trying not to hype up the rivalry. The players are on their best behaviour (well, apart from Anthony Dixon). Everyone’s saying it’s just another game.
There are many strands to the rivalry. The national media love to latch on to the Carroll and Harbaugh stuff. They focus on the similarities between the teams. They talk about the new-found power of the NFC ‘Worst’.
One thing that doesn’t get discussed enough is the fact both teams are starved of success.
Yes, the Niners fans love to boast about their five Super Bowl titles. In reality, the next Super Bowl in 2014 will be the 20th anniversary of San Francisco’s last victory.
The ‘Quest for Six’ continues as they say, but it’s probably more a quest to end two decades of under achievement and near misses.
Seattle’s desperation for success is very different. As a less traditional franchise without half a century of history, the Seahawks fans wonder when it’ll be their turn. They thought it might happen in 2006 after years of mediocrity. It wasn’t to be. Super Bowl XL, if anything, has made the situation far worse.
The Niners want to begin a new era of glory. The Seahawks want to be #1 for the first time.
And the one thing that stands in the way for both teams, more than anything else, is each other.
If the current Niners or the current Seahawks were playing in the mid 00′s NFC West, they’d waltz to home field advantage in the playoffs. And with it, they’d have a great chance to play in multiple Super Bowls.
Now they have to compete with each other, plus a blossoming Rams outfit reinvigorated by Jeff Fisher and a Cardinals team that is certainly better than most of the other bottom feeders you’ll see in the NFL this year.
If either of Seattle or San Francisco ends up as the #1 seed in the NFC, they have a great shot at making the Super Bowl.
For the other? Life becomes much harder on the road.
What drives this rivalry is not the soap opera stuff involving the coaches or players, it’s the knowledge that both teams recognise the biggest threat to their title ambitions is each other.
This weekend is an opportunity for Seattle to hold serve. To win their game at home. San Francisco will get their turn in week 14. Neither team can afford to surrender a home defeat to the other. They can’t afford to go 0-2. These could be the games where division titles, playoff bye’s and home field advantages are decided.
So what could decide it?
Run the ball
Marshawn Lynch has three of the five 100-yard rushing performances Jim Harbaugh has conceded as 49ers coach. That’s an incredible record for Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (who would be my #1 choice if I was an owner looking for a Head Coach next off season). Seattle’s run game never got going against Carolina last week but it simply has to against the Niners. Likewise, San Francisco has to be prepared to run too. In the previous 42-13 defeat they put too much pressure on Colin Kaepernick to throw his team to victory. It was a huge mistake. For me they have an advantage in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They have to exploit that to win.
Get momentum early
The game in December really was a night where everything worked for the Seahawks. It was just one of those occasions where you realise fairly early that it’s going to be your day. Momentum built gradually, snowballing into an avalanche. The three and out to start followed by a quick score from Lynch. Another touchdown before the blocked punt. Before they’d even settled into a gameplan, the Niners were 21-0 down and staring defeat in the face. I suspect we’ll see a very different game on Sunday. But the Seahawks can still take advantage of the crowd and the hostile environment by starting fast. Pete Carroll always says it’s not how you start it’s how you finish. This Sunday will probably require a fast start, a solid middle and a strong finish.
Second half adjustments
I think it’s fair to expect a tight contest, edged by a handful of key plays. In the game at Candlestick last year, the Seahawks missed their opportunity to take control with some ugly drops and misfires. The 49ers trailed 6-3 after a bruising first half. And after the break, they absolutely wiped the floor of the Seahawks. Seattle failed to score again. Unfairly, too much attention was paid to Russell Wilson’s performance. In reality, San Francisco’s second half adjustments won the game. They ran all over the Hawks with some intelligent tweaks, had Alex Smith play a short passing game and they limited Seattle’s offense. If it’s close again at the half on Sunday, making key adjustments will be crucial in a close game.
Bend but don’t break
The Seahawks cannot shut down Kaepernick. He’s too good. And he’ll get more than enough protection on the night to have a productive game. If you give Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin enough time, they’ll get open — even against the ‘Legion of Boom’. I cannot believe for one second that San Francisco will ignore the run like they did last time. Seattle has a good red zone defense and contained Kaepernick in December. That has to be the key again. Make the 49ers settle for field goals and take advantage. Likewise the Seahawks have to do a better job in the red zone than they did last week.
Challenge the 49ers secondary
If you put Seattle’s secondary with San Francisco’s defensive line, you’ll have a defense for the ages. Put San Francisco’s secondary with Seattle’s defensive line and it’s a different story. Russell Wilson is going to be pressured in this game. He’s going to have to be elusive, and he’s going to have to make some difficult throws on the run. But there will be opportunities against this Niners secondary which is far from intimidating. Nnamdi Asomugha and Carlos Rogers are a rare weak link on the San Francisco roster. Exploit it.
As for having to make difficult throws on the run, I had no idea at the time how good this throw was last week. Not many quarterbacks in the NFL can make this pass. Two of them are playing at Century Link on Sunday:
Rest your voice on Saturday.