Now that NFL teams have had time to digest the 2014 schedule released last week, let's take a look at the how the 16-game regular season could affect the NFL's most heated rivalry: the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
Just one game in the standings separated the two teams -- whom many believe are the two best teams in the NFL -- last season. That one game proved to be significant as it gave the Seahawks home-field advantage when they hosted the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Seattle held on to win that game in the final seconds, and then went on to win the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a look at how the 2014 schedule could impact the NFC West race between the Seahawks and the 49ers.
Williamson: Terry, what sticks out to you as the key to the Seahawks' schedule as they try to earn home-field advantage once again?
Blount: If they earn home-field advantage with this nightmarish schedule, they will have earned it the hard way. It's a brutal schedule for the Seahawks, especially down the stretch. From games 10 to 15, the Seahawks play six games over only 35 days, including two in 18 days against the 49ers. Four of those six games are on the road, four are against 2013 playoff teams and the other two are against the Cardinals, who were 10-6 last year.
Bill, do you think the 49ers and their fans were hoping the first regular-season game in the new stadium would be against the Seahawks?
Williamson: I know there was a faction of both people inside the organization and the fan base that absolutely wanted to get a crack at Seattle in Week 1.
That championship game is still being bitterly swallowed. Many people feel like they should have won that game and they feel like they should still be celebrating their sixth Super Bowl title. Because this game was so close, the 49ers feel they can go into Seattle and win. And some would like to get that chance as soon as possible to help bury these horrible feelings. But I also feel the 49ers feel great about their first meeting against the Seahawks. Hosting the Seahawks at their new stadium on Thanksgiving night in prime time is a dream scenario for the 49ers.
Terry, I think this is the biggest game on the entire 2014 NFL schedule. It's the 12th game for both teams and should be a swing game. What is your sense of how the Seahawks feel about this game and everything that surrounds it?
Blount: Privately, they aren't very happy about it. In their view, why should the defending Super Bowl champs have to play their biggest rival, and arguably the second-best team in the league, on the road in prime time for the first meeting between the two in 2014? And it comes only four days after playing a very physical Arizona team that some people feel can challenge for the NFC West title this year.
Bill, what do you see as the biggest challenge for the 49ers on their 2014 schedule?
Williamson: To be honest, I don't think we can talk about the challenges of the 49ers' schedule before the benefits. This schedule falls very nicely for the 49ers. The 49ers spend the final six weeks of the season on the West Coast. Four of those games are home games and one of the two road trips is a 30-minute drive to Oakland. The Seattle trip in Week 14 is the only flight down the stretch. What a gift that is. Plus, the 49ers essentially get two late bye weeks -- in Week 8 and then after the Thanksgiving game. The only sticky portion of this schedule comes in November when the 49ers make back-to-back trips to New Orleans and the New York Giants. Those are the longest two trips of the season and I'm sure the 49ers would rather them not be in consecutive weeks. But, all in all, there isn't much to complain about this schedule.
Terry, the Seahawks' schedule is challenging right away. Do you see this being a key to their season? We already know the margin of error in this division is slim. The 49ers started last season 1-2 and never quite recovered, though they went 12-4.
Blount: I couldn't agree more. Considering how difficult the schedule is down the stretch, I think it's imperative the Seahawks start the season well. In fact, I think they need to go 4-1 in the first five games to have any chance of winning the division. Even though those five games include three 2013 playoff teams to start off, I think they can do it since two of those games are at home against Green Bay and Denver. And the Seahawks also have a bye week in there after the first three games before going on the road to play the Redskins on Monday night.
Bill, do you think the team that wins in Seattle on Dec. 14 is the team that will win the NFC West, or do you think the 49ers can lose that one and still win it?
Williamson: I think it depends on who wins the Week 12 game. If the Seahawks win that game, they will be in good shape. But if the 49ers win it, because of the way their schedule ends with so few travel challenges, the 49ers will be in the driver's seat. Again, the margin of error in this wonderful rivalry is small. Every week counted in 2013 and I expect the same to be true this season.