Seattle Seahawks: San Francisco 49ers
What a difference two weeks make.
The San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks each had a 7-4 record when they played in California on Thanksgiving night. Now the Seahawks are surging at 9-4 after back-to-back road wins and the 49ers are reeling at 7-6 after a stunning loss to the Raiders in Oakland.
The 49ers visit Seattle for the first time since their 23-17 loss in the NFC Championship Game in January, and this time, their focus is on just trying to salvage their season. The Seahawks, on the other hand, can see another Super Bowl trip within reach.
49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a closer look at how these two NFC West rivals have taken much different paths.
Blount: Paul, let’s cut to the chase. What in the world has happened in Santa Clara? A loss to the Raiders. Jim Harbaugh likely moving on. The CEO tweeting an apology. Is this an organization in disarray?
Gutierrez: Yeah, the Super Bowl-or-bust season in Santa Clara is sputtering slowly into Bustville, with oil leaking and steam coming up from under the hood. Is it in disarray? Yes, and then some. Even the team's $1.2 billion palace has been resodded five different times. Many would say all of this is karma for so much hubris over the past three seasons, seasons that included three straight trips to the NFC title game and a Super Bowl appearance. Those more interested in tangible answers point to crippling injuries across the defense and on the offensive line, and the regression and bottoming out of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose skill set as a dynamic runner has not been utilized this season. Perhaps this is due to his big contract extension? Leaks, presumably from the front office to national outlets, that Harbaugh lost the locker room before the season opener did not help matters, and as the losses have piled up, so too have the rumors. And Jed York’s tweet on Thanksgiving apologizing for the team’s showing against the Seahawks was a shot fired across the bow of the S.S. Harbs, no doubt. It has all led to the current state of affairs, which excites and enthralls those in the Pacific Northwest but depresses those clad in red and gold in the Bay Area.
Terry, the defending champs look like they are tanned, greased and ready to defend (successfully, I might add) their Super Bowl title. They stumbled out of the gate a bit, but if there was a flashpoint for success, might it be the trade of Percy Harvin, even with the initial shockwaves?
Blount: No question about it, Paul. It was the right decision and it sent a telling message to everyone: We don’t need this man to get to where we want to go and be who we are. Harvin was a disruptive force on and off the field. The Seahawks bent over backward to try to keep him happy, but it wasn’t possible. Some of the talk about his issues with teammates was overblown, but the biggest issue was the Seahawks' coaches finally saw they had gotten away from who they were as on offense to try to do what Harvin does best ... fly sweeps, bubble screens, etc. Now they’re back to the smashmouth, power-running team they were last season, relying on Marshawn Lynch to carry the load and effectively using the zone-read to give Russell Wilson more options and take advantage of his running ability. You're right, at first it was such a surprising move that it briefly threw the team for a loop. But it’s clear now it made the Seahawks come together as a team and get back to basics.
It looks like Kaepernick is close to going Beast Mode on his interviews these days, answering questions with as few words as possible. But he certainly isn’t Beast Mode in how he’s playing. What has happened to Kaepernick this season?
Gutierrez: To quote Marshawn Lynch, “Yeah.” Or some such. As I mentioned earlier, the Niners’ decision to keep Kaepernick out of relative harm’s way by making the read-option a relic and trying to transform him into a pure pocket passer has backfired on the team -- mightily. Or, the “hater,” in Kaepernick’s view, would say he has simply been found out, that defenses have caught up to him. In any event, his churlish interview sessions are so rude they’re comedic, and they provide a window into his mindset, even if Harbaugh, who made him his handpicked progeny over Alex Smith, continues to defend him to his final breath as Niners coach. Now, it’s easy to get away with Kaepernick's media approach when you’re winning. But when you’re not performing well? Not so much. And with the way the Seahawks have dominated him in Seattle -- he is 0-3 with two TDs and six INTs and a QB rating of 34.9 at CenturyLink Field -- it reminds me of when former Boston Red Sox starter Pedro Martinez said the New York Yankees were “my daddy.” Pretty sure those are two words you’ll never find on a Kaepernick transcript when talking about the Seahawks.
It would obviously be satisfying for Pete Carroll to send Jim Harbaugh out on the business end of a blowout and tell his old college coaching rival, “That’s MY deal,” in the postgame handshake. But there has to be a modicum of respect and admiration coming from Uncle Pete to Wild-Eyed Jim, right? Right?!?
Blount: Carroll has said over and over again how much he respects Harbaugh as a coach and all the things Harbaugh has accomplished in football. And he means it. But respecting someone and liking them are two different things. I respect the heck out of a 20-foot anaconda in the Amazon jungle, but I sure as heck don’t like it. Carroll does his best to get along with everyone and always takes the positive, optimistic view on things. But in my humble opinion, he doesn’t like Harbaugh one iota, and he never will. And he’s not alone. There’s no love lost on Harbaugh from his former Stanford players, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin.
Frank Gore is on pace to rush for the fewest yards of his career when he has played the entire season. At age 31 and now in his 10th season, is this the beginning of the end for him, or is he a victim of a struggling offense?
Gutierrez: Sure, Gore has lost some tread off his tires, but he has not been used to his strengths. It’s almost like clockwork and it reared its head in Oakland again -- that is, the Niners get off to a good start via the running game and then abandon it. Sure, falling behind on the scoreboard makes passing a priority, but the Niners threw the ball 33 times and ran it only 18 against the Raiders in a game that did not become a two-score affair until the fourth quarter. Oh, and Gore rushed only once in the final quarter despite averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Even he is confused. “I just don’t feel like we us,” he said after the loss to the Raiders. And there’s no confusing that sentiment.
Another question so simple, it’s hard: Will the Seahawks overtake the Cardinals to win the NFC West?
Blount: Frankly, now I’ll be surprised if they don’t. Bruce Arians has done a remarkable job there this season, overcoming some key losses on defense and still getting it done most of the time on offense with Drew Stanton at QB instead of the injured Carson Palmer. But the bottom line is the Seahawks are just a better overall team than the Cardinals. The game next week in Arizona will settle it. And by the way, that’s one thing the Seahawks can’t do Sunday -- look ahead to the Cardinals game. Who would have ever thought that possible in a game against the 49ers?
By almost everyone’s estimation, the rough and rugged NFC West was the best division in the NFL in 2013. It had the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, two teams in the NFC Championship Game (Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers) and another 10-game winner in the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were 7-9 but likely would have had a winning season in any other division.
And now? Other than adding Godzilla and three superheroes to the four teams, they could not get much better. It looks like the big boys on the NFC block will remain out west.
Most experts believe the Rams had one of the best drafts in the NFL, adding Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, giving St. Louis four first-round picks on what is arguably the best defensive line in football.
The 49ers had 12 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and made a trade during the draft for talented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson.
The Cardinals signed gigantic left tackle Jared Veldheer and blazing kick returner Ted Ginn in free agency. They also added a vicious hitter, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, with their first draft pick.
As always happens with Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks lost a few key players to free agency, but they kept the man they really wanted to keep in defensive end Michael Bennett and locked up "Legion of Boom" stars Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals.
Believe it or not, the best division in the NFL just got better.
As usual, the Seahawks drafted some players other teams would have taken later, if at all. Should people question their choices, or have they earned the benefit of the doubt?
Terry Blount: Have we learned nothing from the past? Questioning Seattle's draft strategy, along with undrafted signees, now seems a little foolish. Shall I name a few who stand out that other teams passed up or the experts questioned? Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Smith, for starters. The Seahawks bring in players with specific traits -- unusual athleticism, driving competitiveness and obvious intelligence. Where those players rank on another team's draft board means nothing to them. And at first glance from rookie camp, they found some winners in receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, along with defensive end Cassius Marsh.
Josh Weinfuss: A little leeway should be given to the Seahawks because, first, they are the reigning NFL champions, and second, their personnel department has been able to piece together a pretty good roster with players who were not highly rated. With that being said, good will should only go so far. Sometimes a general manager and coach think they have the secret recipe and get cocky about their ability to find talent. When that happens, bad decisions are made. Obviously, the Seahawks have a reputation for picking good players, but they won't be right every time. Every team has an off draft and picks who don't pan out. It is also too early for us to know if some of their "rogue" picks will do anything. Their picks should definitely be questioned until they have a chance to show us their stuff.
Bill Williamson: The glue to the Seahawks is general manager John Schneider. Yes, coach Pete Carroll is a tremendous fit for the franchise and is a big part of the team's success. But Schneider is the architect of this franchise. He built this roster. There is little doubting the way he has drafted. Look at the core of the team -- they were all great value choices by Schneider. The tie goes to Schneider. You can doubt him if you choose, but it would be a lousy idea. Expect these Seattle rookies to develop into players. Schneider always wins.
@TerryBlountESPN No. People questioned Russell Wilson immediately after 2012 draft. We all know how that turned out! Takes time.- Tina Metcalf (@girlinseattle) May 27, 2014
Do the additions of Johnson and Carlos Hyde give the 49ers the most dangerous offense in the division?
Blount: Both players will help, but the real key for the 49ers is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Having enough weapons wasn't really the problem. Using them effectively on a consistent basis and cutting down on mistakes is the issue. Kaepernick's extraordinary talent is unquestioned. But can he be the same type of team leader that Wilson is and make the big play in the most difficult moments? He couldn't do it last year in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. If he shows he can do that consistently when the big game is on the line, watch out.
Weinfuss: It is certainly looking like the 49ers have one of the most dangerous offenses in the division, if not the most dangerous. San Francisco has the right pieces at every position, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end. But the first question that came to mind when going through San Francisco's offensive depth chart is this: Will one football be enough to go around? This might turn into a case of the 49ers being better on paper than they are on the field, which has happened many times throughout the NFL. The Cardinals bolstered their skill positions during the offseason, giving themselves a lot of talent at wide receiver and tight end to complement two young running backs and a veteran quarterback who finds ways to win. A team can have all the ammunition in the world, but if the coach doesn't know how to use it, it will be stockpiled for naught.
Williamson: I think so. There is nothing missing from this offense. We saw how dynamic it can be when Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. Put Crabtree, the clutch Anquan Boldin and Johnson together and that is a great veteran group of receivers. Someone is always going to be open. Rookie Bruce Ellington was added to give the 49ers the ability to take the top off of defenses, an aspect they didn't possess last season. We didn't even mention Davis at tight end. Really, how is this offense going to be stopped? Kaepernick looked like a completely different quarterback when Crabtree played last season. Kaepernick with all of these weapons? Oh, and we didn't even mention the bread and butter of the 49ers' offense -- the running game. Hyde, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore? How do you defend this group?
@BWilliamsonESPN sure does...how can you spy Kap now with 3 legit wrs + VD...Hyde taking on a 7 man front with our bulldozing line. #1- CDM (@CDM49er) May 14, 2014
After a narrow miss last season, have the Cardinals made enough of the right moves to get into the playoffs?
Blount: I don't think they needed to make many moves to reach the playoffs. Record-wise, they were a playoff team last season, but a victim of circumstances in the playoff structure. So the real question is can the Cardinals catch Seattle and/or San Francisco? And my answer is yes, especially the 49ers. Quarterback Carson Palmer will be better after having a full season in the Arizona offense. Bruce Arians might be the most underrated coach in the NFL. The team clearly is on the rise, while San Francisco's offseason turmoil could come back to bite it.
Weinfuss: The Cardinals have made enough moves to make the playoffs this season. They missed the postseason a year ago by a game, which might have been different if Arizona had been stocked with a better kick returner, left tackle, second cornerback and safety. The Cards addressed those issues in the offseason, which should make them better in 2014. Adding left tackle Veldheer to anchor the offensive line should ease Arians' concerns about Palmer's blind side. One thing Ginn has shown throughout his career is that he can return kicks with the best. But the biggest difference for the Cards will be their improved secondary. Signing talented veteran Cromartie gives the Cardinals two lockdown cornerbacks (along with Patrick Peterson) and drafting Bucannon gave Arizona an instant upgrade against tight ends and big receivers -- which there are plenty of in NFC West.
Williamson: I really like how well the Cardinals are coached. I think Arians is on to something. His players seem to respond to him. So the program will continue to rise under Arians. Also, I love the defense; it is nasty, aggressive and ball-hawking. Add great defense and a well-respected coaching staff and a team is going to win a lot of games. I think the bottom line with the Cardinals is quarterback play. Palmer had his moments last season, but I'm not a big believer in him. I think he will cost the Cardinals at some point. Maybe this is a playoff team, but I think the Cardinals are a couple of steps behind the Seahawks and the 49ers. The deficit starts at quarterback.
@joshweinfuss no. if o-line depth isn't addressed, look out for consistent pressure off the right side and more INTs from cardiac carson- Sean Kirchheimer (@stkirch) May 21, 2014
The Rams decided not to draft help at wide receiver and waited until the sixth round to add a young quarterback. Will their offense score enough to make up ground in the NFC West?
Blount: Sure, it would have helped to add a top receiver, but is there a bigger unknown in the entire division than Sam Bradford? What the Rams, and everyone else, have to find out is whether Bradford is an elite quarterback. Frankly, I have my doubts, but he did play well last season before his injury. Bradford's situation is much different than that of Kaepernick, who is as gifted a player physically as you will ever see. In Bradford's case, it's hard to know how good he really is or can be, because he hasn't had top talent around him. And it doesn't help that he has to play six games against three of the of the best defenses in the NFL. It's time for Bradford to step up, no matter whom he is throwing the ball to each week.
Weinfuss: The depth of the NFC West makes this the toughest question of the four. The Rams' additions weren't significant improvements to their offense, but will help. Bradford will come back with a vengeance and try to light up the scoreboard. He will have a talented group of receivers, but can they score enough to close the gap from the bottom of the West? Not sure that can happen. Rookie Robinson will take his lumps and bruises and might not come into his own until the second half of the season, so the Rams have to be hoping it's not too late by then. Points will be at a premium in the West, especially considering how good the three other defenses are, so the Rams will have to be even better than expected to make up ground, and I'm not sure they are ready for that just yet.
Williamson: Points scored? Who needs points with that defense. Man, the Rams' defense is getting silly good. Adding Donald to that defensive front should have been banned. It's simply unfair. The Rams are not going to allow many points this season. So the offense won't have to be overly dynamic. With that said, I am not a big Bradford fan. I don't think he is the answer. Until the Rams upgrade at quarterback, I don't think they will reach their full potential or be able to hang in the division race. But they will dangerous every week because of the defense.
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.
2. Karlos Dansby, Arizona LB: He is 32, and that could scare teams, but he can still dominate.
3. Donte Whitner, San Francisco S: The 49ers could have some big competition, but Whitner is a strong defender they want back.
4. Brandon Browner, Seattle, CB: Even though he is facing a four-game suspension, Browner should get attention. Great talent and size. he may be worth the risk.
5. Golden Tate, Seattle WR: Tate might not be a numbers monster, but he has big potential.
6. Rodger Saffold, St. Louis OG: The Rams' biggest free-agent priority has proved capable of being a Pro Bowl-caliber guard when given the chance.
7. Clinton McDonald, Seattle DT: A solid plugger on a great defense. He will get interest.
8. Tarell Brown, San Francisco CB: Solid performer who could get looks as a No. 2 cornerback.
9. Walter Thurmond, Seattle CB: He isn’t as known as one of the Seahawks’ top cornerbacks, but he played big. He could be looking at nice payday.
10. Andre Roberts, Arizona WR: He quietly had a nice season in 2013, with 43 catches. He could attract solid interest.
11. Breno Giacomini, Seattle OG: A solid offensive lineman whom the Seahawks want back.
12. Shelley Smith, St. Louis OG: Started just two games in 2013 but flashed starter potential when given the chance.
13. Steven Hauschka, Seattle K: A standout kicker whom the Seahawks want back.
14. Phil Dawson, San Francisco K: The 49ers badly want this guy to return. He saved many games last season.
15. Eric Winston, Arizona OT: He’s not what he used but is still solid. The Cardinals want him back.
Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. See you there.
SEATTLE -- Two bitter rivals in one division, two teams with vitriol among players, coaches and fans. It comes down to a rubber-match showdown to decide which NFC West team will reach the Super Bowl.
It doesn't get any better in the NFC Championship Game: the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson take a detailed look at some of the key issues entering a game in which emotions are bound to be sky-high.
Blount: Bill, clearly there is no love lost between these two teams, although I do think they respect each other. How much of a factor do you think players' emotions will play in the outcome, if any?
Williamson: The 49ers are coming off a highly emotional game against the Carolina Panthers, and San Francisco handled it way better than the Carolina players did. The Panthers were called for several silly penalties spurred by their emotion. Some 49ers players said they thought their playoff experience was a factor and the Panthers might have been too emotional. The Seahawks have playoff experience, so it will be interesting. I think the key will be Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman and San Francisco receiver Anquan Boldin. Both of these guys can get chippy and can get on the nerves of opponents. So I'd start there.
Terry, do you think Sherman can control himself this week? We all know how he can get and how facing Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers amps him up.
Blount: We'll see, Bill, but I think Sherman understands the significance of this game. He can be brash, obviously, but he's also an extremely intelligent guy who knows when and where to pick his fights and his comments. Now, if the game ends in a Seattle victory, you'll want to have a microphone in his face because he's likely to let it fly.
Bill, how much of a difference has Michael Crabtree made in the 49ers offense since his return?
Williamson: It's been incredible. We knew Crabtree would give this offense life when he returned Dec. 1 from a torn Achilles he suffered in May, but I don't think we knew the effect would be this dramatic. It is simply a different offense with Crabtree.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is much more confident because he has more weapons. It has also made Boldin much more dangerous. Before, he was being double- and triple-teamed. That is no longer the case with Crabtree on the field. Now, it seems every game Crabtree, Boldin or tight end Vernon Davis makes a huge impact.
Terry, we all know the Seahawks' secondary is elite, but do you think it can account for all three weapons?
Blount: This is the best secondary I've ever seen, but no secondary can completely shut down the trio of Davis, Boldin and Crabtree. I've been amazed at some of the catches Crabtree has made in the playoffs the past two weeks. It's clearly pick your poison with these three. Sherman did a phenomenal job on Boldin in the game here in September, but Crabtree didn't play. That's a big difference. What it could come down to is whether the Seattle defensive backs can come up with a key interception or if they take too many chances and one of these guys beats them for a big play. Actually, both things could happen, but the point when they happen could decide the outcome.
Bill, after losing back-to-back games in November, the 49ers have won eight in a row. Besides Crabtree, what are some of the things that contributed to their impressive run?
Williamson: Well, it's related to Crabtree, but Kaepernick has been outstanding. He has thrown one interception in his last 146 passes. The team has one turnover in the past five games. Defensively, the 49ers have been dominant. This is just a clutch, timely, well-coached team that is playing at a high level.
Terry, do you think the Seahawks might have peaked earlier this season?
Blount: That's the prevailing logic nationally -- especially with the issues Seattle has had throwing the football in recent weeks -- but I'm not buying it. The Seahawks lost by two points on a late field goal at San Francisco and lost by a touchdown to an Arizona Cardinals team that is much better than people realized earlier in the season. They have faced four top-10 defenses over that five-week span, and the Seattle defense has continued to play lights out. All season long, this has been a team that finds a way to win without putting up big offensive stats. It's who they are. Now, we'll find out if that's good enough in a game of this magnitude against a tough opponent.
Bill, the 49ers seemed to start a trend in the game at Candlestick Park last month by stopping Russell Wilson on runs around the end. He had only one rushing attempt for two yards. Since that game, other teams have copied that formula to keep Wilson in the pocket. How were they able to make it work, and can they do it again?
Williamson: The 49ers defense is supremely athletic. The four linebackers are tone-setters, and they can keep up with Wilson athletically. I think the 49ers will certainly keep the same game plan. They know their best chance to win this game is with big plays on defense.
Terry, is the Seattle offense ready for what the 49ers bring defensively?
Blount: I think Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle running game showed last week against the New Orleans Saints they can get the job done against a quality defensive front that loaded the box to stop them. And Lynch has played well against the 49ers over the past three seasons. The passing game, however, is another story. The Seahawks need to step it up and hit a few big plays through the air if they hope to win this game. Tight end Zach Miller could be a key guy here. If Lynch is running well, they should use play-action to find Miller over the middle or in the flat.
Bill, the 49ers haven't played well in their past two games at CenturyLink Field, losing by a combined score of 71-16. The noise level Sunday may be at an all-time high. Can the San Francisco offense perform effectively in that environment against the best defense in the league?
Williamson: That is the story of this game. I keep going back to Week 2 and remembering the trouble the 49ers had on offense. They had no chance. Now, Kaepernick is a much more seasoned player than he was then. That was just his 12th NFL start. He's more poised. But you bring up a great point: This place is going to be extra noisy. The 49ers simply can't afford to make any mistakes because of it, and I don't know if that is possible.
Terry, don't you sense the entire state of Washington is counting the minutes until the 49ers offense steps onto the field?
Blount: I've never seen anything quite like it, Bill. The entire Pacific Northwest is in a Seahawks frenzy that's amped up even more because of the fans' deep-seeded hatred for everything 49ers. CenturyLink will go seismic again, and that could be the difference in the game.
Tickets to the NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks go on sale Monday, but not for people with a California billing address.
The Seahawks announced that tickets for the game, which takes place Sunday, Jan. 19, at CenturyLink Field, will be available to fans with a billing address in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
But California? Not an option.
Beyond the obvious ramifications of Sunday's matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks -- Seattle can clinch the NFC West with a victory and San Francisco needs to win to keep hold of its wild card spot -- both teams will likely have their No. 1 receivers back. What difference will that make to their offenses? We tapped ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson to break down what Michael Crabtree and Percy Harvin bring to their respective teams.
Michael Crabtree, 49ers
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It took one game to judge the impact Crabtree can have on the San Francisco offense.
Crabtree, who is returning from a torn Achilles, had two catches for 68 yards (including a 60-yard catch-and-run) on 42 snaps in a 23-13 win over St. Louis. Crabtree's presence on the field enabled receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis to get open. They combined for 13 catches for 180 yards. Most importantly, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has had to deal with a lack of weapons most of the season, looked comfortable and confident and he worked through his progressions because of the multiple options Crabtree's presence created.
It should only improve as Crabtree gets healthier down the stretch.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson believes the biggest impact Crabtree will have is expanding the playbook of head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Williamson believes the 49ers' have one of the most varied, deepest playbooks in the league. But without Crabtree, the team's play calling was hamstrung.
Williamson thinks he can see it become a factor as soon as Sunday. The Seahawks are missing cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner.
"We could see the 49ers take advantage of that now,” Williamson said. "They can go with three receivers with Crabtree, Boldin and Manningham and Davis at tight end. Basically, that gives them four receivers. There have so many different packages that wasn't available that now are. It could give defenses problems that weren't happening without Crabtree.”
The 49ers have run 156 snaps in a three-receiver set. That is the fewest in the NFL. As a result, they have run 328 snaps with two tight ends. That is the sixth highest in the NFL.
Crabtree's return also deepens the receiver rotation. Fully healthy, Williamson thinks the 49ers' passing weapons are in this order: Crabtree, Davis, Boldin and Manningham. Crabtree's return could have a huge impact on Boldin.
Boldin goes from a No. 1 receiver to a No. 2 starter. If Crabtree and Davis are rolling, Boldin is going to get open often and it will cause major headaches for defenses. We saw that play out against St. Louis when Boldin had nine catches, his second most of the season.
Boldin will now be an important accessory to Crabtree, who was targeted on 34 percent of the 49ers' plays last season. It was the second highest rate in the league and Kaepernick has completed 67 percent of his career passes to Crabtree.
"I think we're just starting to see the impact of Crabtree in San Francisco,” Williamson said. "Kaepernick has his security blanket back.”
-- ESPN.com 49ers reporter Bill Williamson
Percy Harvin, Seahawks
RENTON, Wash. -- The 49ers didn't have to deal with Harvin earlier this year, not that it mattered. The Seahawks still won 29-3 at CenturyLink Field.
But San Francisco's defense and special teams may have to account for Harvin's skills on Sunday at Candlestick Park.
If all goes well at practice this week, a big if considering the unpredictable recovery for Harvin this season, he will play on the road for the first time this year.
Harvin made his season debut against Minnesota on Nov. 17 at Seattle, running back one kickoff 58 yards and coming up with a finger-tip reception on a 17-yard pass that kept a touchdown drive alive.
But soreness in his surgically-repaired hip caused him to miss the Monday night game against the Saints. Harvin had a cortisone shot last week to relieve inflammation. He hopes to play on Sunday.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson sees Harvin as a special talent.
"I'm extremely high on him," Williamson said. "He's a very unique player and he's a lot more physical than people believe. You can line him up at so many different places. He does everything well. Versatility is his No. 1 asset.
"He's sure-handed and he's fantastic after the catch.”
Harvin was acquired from Minnesota in an offseason trade that sent the Vikings three Seattle draft picks -- a first-round and seventh-round pick in 2013 and a third-round choice in 2014.
Harvin signed a $67 million, six-year deal with the Seahawks, with $25 million guaranteed. But he injured his hip during the summer and has surgery Aug. 1 to repair a torn labrum. The usual recovery period for that type of surgery is four months.
Seahawks fans have only seen a glimpse of what he can do, but Seattle still is 11-1.
"It's not like they need another threat,” Williamson said. "But he's one more piece for an offense that's really clicking. He's one of those type of guys that you can line up anywhere on the field and the defense has to know where he is.
"You can't have a big linebacker cover him. He can line up in the slot and run a go-route. Wes Welker is not going to do that for you. You can't have press coverage against [Harvin] without a safety over the top or he will run right past you.”
Even without Harvin, the Seahawks have a strong receiving corps with Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Zach Miller.
"People are so afraid of that [Seattle] running game that the receivers often get a lot of one-on-one situations,” Williamson said. "Then you have a quarterback (Russell Wilson) playing at a MVP level and putting the ball right where he needs to.”
Williamson believes Harvin's presence will make Seattle's offense more unpredictable.
"He's a competitive, nasty guy on the field who wants to win,” Williamson said. "You can throw it to him deep or throw it over the middle. He can run end around. He can line up in the backfield. I think they will hand it to him a few times.”
And he's also a dangerous return man, as he showed on his first attempt this season, taking a kickoff in the end zone and returning it up the middle 58 yards. The next time Harvin lined up for a return, the Vikings opted not to kick to him.
Now it's just a matter of Harvin getting 100 percent healthy. And no doubt the 49ers are planning what they need to do stop him.
-- ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount
Sherman should know. He played for Harbaugh at Stanford before joining the Seahawks and seeing Carroll’s approach.
“I think they are two different sides of the sphere,” Sherman said Thursday. “Pete is energetic, fun, positive, positive, positive. And Jim is more of stern, it’s going to be this way. He’s old-school coach, like Bear Bryant and those guys that preached discipline. They [Harbaugh and Carroll] are just cut from different molds.”
Sherman started his Stanford career as a wide receiver, but moved to cornerback his junior year. Sherman was asked which coaching style motivates him the most.
“I’m self-motivated, but I like Pete’s approach because it’s always positive," Sherman said. "Win, lose or draw, he’s going to find the positives in it.
“No player loves to be dog-cussed. There’s some hard coaching here, but Pete does it in a way where nobody screams, nobody yells, everybody has a positive mindset. Pete tries to pull a good message out of every game, regardless if you feel like you played the worst game of your life. As a player, you can’t help but love that.”
As early season games go, this is about as big as they come. NFC West rivals, some would say bitter rivals, in a Week 2 showdown to see which team has the upper hand in the division and, if the preseason prognosticators are correct, in the race to the Super Bowl.
So let’s get right to it:
Quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are rising stars in the NFL, dynamic team leaders who are masters in the read-option and dangerous with both their legs and their arm. So who has the upper hand?
Terry Blount: I'll say Wilson in this one, strictly because the home-field advantage is so big in CenturyLink and it's the home opener. These two guys are so similar in how they play the game, but much different in terms of personality. Wilson is more of a buttoned-up-businessman type of guy, while Kaepernick is more colorful and a little more carefree in his approach; at least that is how it looks. But I know Wilson has the utmost respect for Kaepernick and his abilities as a quarterback.
Bill Williamson: Terry, this reminds me of the argument I had to make last year when the question was who was having a better comeback season, Denver's Peyton Manning or Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson. There was no wrong answer. I have the same issue here. Kaepernick and Wilson are two of the reasons why the game going to be so great in the next decade. It’s difficult to disparage or poke holes in the game of either one. However, for the sake of this exercise, I will back Kaepernick. I’m sure the Packers would agree. Any time a guy beats a team with 181 yards on the ground and then comes back with 412 yards in the air, that is the work of a special player. I think Kaepernick may be just a tad more dangerous the Wilson. I’d lean on Kaepernick’s side, but again, I’d take Wilson on my side most Sundays. Kaepernick was nearly flawless against Green Bay. It was stunning.
What do you think will be the key defensively as the Seahawks try to contain Kaepernick?
Blount: Last week, Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said they wanted to keep Cam Newton from running because they didn't think he could beat them throwing. He was right, but that plan won't work with Kaepernick. The Seahawks' line will have to get more pressure on Kaepernick than it did on Newton. Defensive end Cliff Avril would help if he could finally get on the field. So would defensive end Chris Clemons, although that seems unlikely. And Seattle needs the return of cornerback Brandon Browner, who missed the opener with a hamstring issue. Walter Thurmond played well in place of Browner, but Browner's size (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) is such an asset against a strong receiver like Anquan Boldin.
Williamson: After the Green Bay game, San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said he can’t wait to see the season develop because Kaepernick can beat defenses so many different ways. If the Seattle secondary keeps Kaepernick from going wild, perhaps he will beat them with his feet. That’s the thing about Kaepernick -- he will get you. He will make his impact. Keeping it under control on the ground and in the air is the key for Seattle.
Let's talk about the running backs -- Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch. Might one of these guys determine the outcome of the game?
Williamson: I certainly can see both veterans playing a major role. Gore was pretty quiet against the Packers -- until he needed to be loud. Yes, he had just a paltry 44 yards on 21 carries, but Gore made a difference with some key, clock-eating runs. At 30 years old, that is Gore’s role in this multidimensional offense. He is not going to be the lead dog, but the 49ers rely on him when needed. His days of carrying this offense are over, but he can help. I expect him to come up with a few solid runs Sunday. As for Lynch, he is clearly an emotional spark plug for the Seahawks. He will come at the 49ers. But this is a defense that will be ready. San Francisco allowed 3.7 yards a carry last season, the third-fewest in the NFL. And the 49ers shut down a revamped Green Bay run game Sunday, allowing the Packers 63 yards on 19 carries -- a 3.3-per-carry average. Green Bay’s longest run was 7 yards. In the end, I think both Gore and Lynch may have their moments, but neither will take over the game.
Blount: Lynch had a terrible game in the opener, rushing for only 43 yards on 17 carries. That won't work if Seattle hopes to win Sunday. With all the talk of Wilson and Kaepernick, the Seahawks still are a power-running team. Pete Carroll made the running game a point of emphasis at practice this week. Gore has enjoyed some of his best games against Seattle, rushing for 1,238 in 14 games against the Seahawks. But I think Lynch will go into Beast Mode on Sunday to prove last week was an exception. And it’s worth noting that Lynch has four 100-yard rushing games in his last six meetings with the 49ers.
It will be interesting to see how emotions come into play in this game. The 49ers are coming off an emotionally charged win over the Packers, and we all know about the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry. Do you think it will carry over to the field?
Blount: I really don't think it matters for this one. Both teams have been pointing to this matchup since the end of last season. And let's tell it like it is: Regardless how much they try to downplay it, these teams really don't like each other. The issues between Carroll and Jim Harbaugh go back to their Pac-12 days. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman has made it clear he has no love lost for Harbaugh, his coach at Stanford. So a little bad blood going in makes it even bigger.
Williamson: Teams can play emotionally for only so long before they wear down. Still, no team is going to wear down emotionally in Week 2. The 49ers are coming off an emotionally draining win over the Packers, but there is zero chance for a letdown. Harbaugh will see to that. He will get his team up for this game. There is serious disdain involved here. I expect plenty of pushing, shoving and yapping. In this case, it will only enhance the game, and I don’t think it will be a detriment to either team unless someone loses control.
49ers wide receiver Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis are coming off huge performances last week. Can the Seattle defensive backs -- whom many believe are the best in the league -- slow them down?
Williamson: That will be the goal for sure. The biggest question mark about the 49ers going into the season was at receiver with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out. But Boldin and Davis answered that question. In their first game together, Boldin and Kaepernick looked like they had played together for five years. Nearly every yard of Boldin’s 208 yards came in the clutch. Kaepernick and Davis combined for just six catches total in the final six games of the regular season last year. But they connected well in the postseason, and they were terrific together Sunday. Seattle will likely slow down both Boldin and Davis some. Don’t expect for Boldin and Davis to dominate. The 49ers will have to find other options. The key for San Francisco is to get rotational receivers Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton involved, as well as Kendall Hunter out of the backfield. I think San Francisco is varied enough to do it, but Boldin and Davis will have to make some kind of impact as well.
Blount: No secondary, no matter how good it is, can stop Boldin and Davis entirely. Free safety Earl Thomas said what that they want to do, not just in this game but in every game, is lure a quarterback to throw to the middle of the field. Thomas often cheats up near the line, leaving only Kam Chancellor deep, to entice throws into the middle. The Seahawks see it as a trap. They believe they have enough talent to force turnovers and mistakes by any offense if they throw consistently over the middle, so Davis, especially, will get his chances. Seattle’s defensive backs have a knack for forcing turnovers, and I expect they will come up with one or two Sunday.
Maybe the San Francisco 49ers just needed another wide receiver and they honestly felt rookie Chris Harper was the best option available to add to their roster.
It’s a sensible conclusion, but for many Seahawks fans, that won’t be the perception. The move by the 49ers (first reported by Adam Schefter of ESPN) that kept the Seattle Seahawks from placing Harper on their practice squad, will be viewed as another example of the bad blood between the NFC West rivals.
This is starting to look like the Hatfields and McCoys of the NFL. These two teams don’t like each other and they don’t hide it. The two coaches -- Pete Carroll at Seattle and Jim Harbaugh at San Francisco -- have issues dating back to their days in the Pac-12.
Now the 49ers have thrown another iron on the fire by signing Harper, Seattle's fourth-round pick from Kansas State. Harper did not look good in training camp or the preseason games. He dropped two passes, (one of which would have been an easy touchdown) against the Oakland Raiders in the final preseason game last week.
And Harper was beaten out for the fifth receiver spot by free agent Stephen Williams, who caught seven passes for 236 yards in the preseason, including three long touchdowns. Williams suffered a concussion in the final preseason game and his status for the opener is unknown.
Despite Harper's poor showing, it was unusual for Seattle to release him. He was one of only two fourth-round draft picks to get released -- the other being quarterback Tyler Wilson at Oakland.
But the Seahawks thought Harper (a big receiver at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds) had potential to improve and wanted to add him to the practice squad. The 49ers kept that from happening.
San Francisco has two of its top receivers -- Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham -- on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to start the season, so the 49ers need help there. But they kept five receivers on the roster after the cut to 53 -- Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin, Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore.
Whether Harper can help them early is questionable. But the rivalry between these two Super Bowl contenders just got a little more heated, and it isn’t long before they meet on the field.
The Seahawks play host to the 49ers at Century Link Field in a Sunday night game in Week 2.
Sixty-three voters helped rank 100 top players on each side of the ball. NFC West teams accounted for 20 players on defense and 16 on offense. The 36-player total works out to 18 percent representation for the NFC West, above the 12.5 percent expectation for any division.
The chart shows where NFC West players ranked on each list. I shaded offensive players in gray to better distinguish the rankings.
The 49ers' Patrick Willis and the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald have long been perceived as the best players in the division. They've got additional competition, but those two ranked higher than anyone else in the NFC West.
There were sure to be oversights in a project of this scope. Defensive end Calais Campbell of the Cardinals stands out to me as the most glaring one. I might have placed him between Patrick Peterson and Chris Long in defensive rankings as they stood for this project.
Three Seahawks cornerbacks earned spots on the list even though one of them, Antoine Winfield, reportedly could be released by the team Saturday in the reduction to 53 players Saturday.
A quick look at ranked players by team:
San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Willis (3), Aldon Smith (10), Justin Smith (11), Vernon Davis (18), NaVorro Bowman (18), Joe Staley (25), Mike Iupati (32), Frank Gore (37), Colin Kaepernick (42), Ahmad Brooks (56), Anthony Davis (60), Donte Whitner (64), Michael Crabtree (78), Anquan Boldin (83) and Jonathan Goodwin (92).
Seattle Seahawks: Richard Sherman (8), Earl Thomas (17), Percy Harvin (26), Marshawn Lynch (27), Brandon Browner (46), Russell Wilson (47), Russell Okung (49), Kam Chancellor (49), Max Unger (57), Bobby Wagner (67), Winfield (70), Cliff Avril (74) and Chris Clemons (85).
St. Louis Rams: Long (40), James Laurinaitis (57), Jake Long (61), Cortland Finnegan (63).
Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald (7), Patrick Peterson (19), Daryl Washington (59) and Darnell Dockett (79).
The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.
"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."
Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.
The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.