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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Double Coverage: 49ers at Seahawks

By Mike Sando and Matt Williamson

Colin Kaepernick/Russell Wilson
The 49ers and Seahawks have much in common, including being led by impressive first-year starting quarterbacks -- Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.

Both teams' head coaches came from the old Pac-10 Conference. Their general managers worked together for the Washington Redskins in 2001. Their athletic young quarterbacks turned down opportunities to play baseball instead of football. Both teams have powerful running backs, highly ranked defenses and playoff aspirations.

What the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have in common will not stop them from settling their differences at CenturyLink Field in Week 16.

The 49ers already have clinched a playoff berth. They can claim a second consecutive NFC West title by defeating Seattle for a fourth consecutive time under coach Jim Harbaugh. The Seahawks can clinch a playoff berth with a victory. They also can send a message to their more accomplished division rival from down the Pacific Coast.

The Sunday night lights await the most highly anticipated and consequential NFC West game of the 2012 season.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. is here to help break it down.

Sando: Matt, let's start off with the quarterbacks. Both already rank among the league leaders in the meaningful categories. Russell Wilson leads the NFL and Colin Kaepernick ranks third in Total QBR since Week 11, when Kaepernick became a starter. Both are top eight for the season. Who has the better QB?

Williamson: Seattle. I’m really high on both. I think both are going to be legitimate starters and stars. San Francisco is a year ahead of Seattle in just about every aspect, but I feel like the opposite is true at quarterback. Wilson looks like he has started more games and is mentally further along. Fewer bad throws. So consistent. Never turns the ball over. He is way ahead of the curve. I think he is the better player, but I like both very much.

Sando: Kaepernick has only five starts. The 49ers are 4-1 in those games. They've won at New England. Their only defeat with Kaepernick starting came in overtime on the road against a St. Louis team that has somehow gone 4-0-1 against the NFC West. Kaepernick has a higher Total QBR score through his first five starts than anyone since 2008. Wilson started the season slowly, but he's leading the league in QBR over the past 10 weeks. His rookie season is lining up closely from a statistical standpoint with Drew Brees' breakout season in 2004. So, which one of these quarterbacks has the brighter future?

Williamson: I think Kaepernick's ceiling is higher. Wilson's floor is higher. I would roll the dice on Kaepernick because we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg with that guy. I really feel like we're going to see this matchup for the next 10 years.

Sando: Both teams can really run the ball. The 49ers are second and the Seahawks third in rushing yards. The 49ers have consistently stopped the run, too. Seattle was allowing only 3.3 yards per carry through Week 6, but the figure has been a league-worst 5.3 yards since then. It all started with the 49ers rushing for 175 yards against the Seahawks in Week 7. Teams haven't run on Seattle in a way that would demoralize a defense, but that could be because the offense has improved enough to cover up defensive shortcomings. That jump from 3.3 to 5.3 stands out.

Williamson: I do think that is probably the No. 1 advantage in San Francisco's favor considering it was the case the first time these teams played. The Niners confused them a lot. Not only are they bigger and stronger, able to run downhill with a big, physical offensive line, but their run game is extremely well-schemed. They use so many personnel groups and throw so much at you. People don’t talk about that enough when it comes to running games. You don't know who is whamming you, who is going to be in the backfield. They will use super-heavy sets, go empty, stuff like that.

Sando: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has alluded to that in the past. The last time these teams played, the game was on a Thursday night in San Francisco. The short week made it tougher for Seattle to prep for those unusual wrinkles in the running game. The Seahawks also have a couple of young linebackers in rookie Bobby Wagner and second-year man K.J. Wright. Those guys have additional seasoning now, plus some familiarity with the 49ers.

Williamson: The 49ers aren't the same team, either. Now you throw in the Kaepernick factor and they are extremely hard to prepare for. Seattle's personnel is still real strong. You're not going to be like, 'Hey, we're going to run at Chris Clemons.' They have solid personnel. They're not a bunch of schleps in the front seven whom the 49ers are going to push around.

Sando: It did seem like those young linebackers were vulnerable last time. The 49ers' guards, Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, can be trouble when they get their hands on a linebacker. Some of those trap plays let the guards get onto the linebackers without interference from the defensive tackles.

Williamson: Wagner is not little, Wright is not little, but neither one is a real great shedder yet. Wright is so tall that he will not win the leverage game if you get your hands on him. Wagner was simply faster than everyone at Utah State. Those guys are works in progress on that front.

Michael Crabtree
Michael Crabtree will be tested by Richard Sherman -- assuming the Seahawks cornerback isn't suspended.
Sando: Seattle has some depth concerns at cornerback. Brandon Browner is serving a suspension. Walter Thurmond and Marcus Trufant have been hurt. Richard Sherman could face a suspension at any time. Meanwhile, injuries have struck the 49ers at wide receiver. Kyle Williams is out for the season. A shoulder injury has forced Mario Manningham to miss games lately. Last time, Jim Harbaugh complained about aggressive tactics from Browner and Sherman. How do you see these matchups going?

Williamson: Michael Crabtree has really emerged as the 49ers' No. 1 receiver, but Sherman is the better player there. If they go one-on-one a high percentage of the time, that favors Seattle. As for the rest of the Niners' wideouts -- it's not like playing the Patriots. They don’t have enough weapons to really abuse you there. If they win Sherman on Crabtree, everything else is a draw.

Sando: Justin Smith's status for the 49ers is another key variable. He's the anchor of that defensive line. An arm injury forced him from the New England game. Smith did not practice Wednesday. If that injury is serious, the 49ers' line could be in some trouble. On the other side, Seattle line coach Tom Cable recently suggested his left tackle, Russell Okung, was playing as well as any left tackle around. Marshawn Lynch would seem to have the rushing yards to back that up. Your thoughts?

Williamson: I don't love Seattle's O-line. I don't think it's bad, but it is well-coached and maxed out and if I were the general manager in Seattle, I would really be tempted to take a guard or right tackle in the first round to add to the mix. It's going to be a really tough challenge against this 49ers defense. Assuming Justin Smith is playing, I don't think Lynch goes for 120. I think the trenches certainly favor San Francisco, although Max Unger, the Seahawks' center, is one of the most underrated guys out there.

Sando: Let's get right to it, Matt. Who is most likely to win this game?

Williamson: It's in Seattle, the fans will be insane, this is their Super Bowl. You could see a semi-letdown for the 49ers because if they lose, they are still fine. I hate betting against the Seahawks at home against anybody. This one is going to be even more emotional, louder, Kaepernick is young and I really like Seattle. They can make some noise in the playoffs. I feel like San Francisco is better than them, like the 49ers are one year ahead. I don't know who to pick, but I probably will pick the Seahawks.

Sando: The 49ers won in Seattle by a 19-17 score last season. Alex Smith and Tarvaris Jackson were the quarterbacks. Patrick Willis did not play for the 49ers. Seattle had a backup guard starting at left tackle. I also think the 49ers have the better team, but the venue and circumstances could give Seattle an edge.