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.