A much hyped third meeting will—duh—be decided by the teams' potent running games, but perhaps not by the runners you'd think
SEATTLE AND SAN FRANCISCO both called designed runs on a league-high 46% of their snaps in 2013, according to Football Outsiders. And though they shared three crucial ingredients to being dominant run-based clubs—a stingy defense, a Pro Bowl tailback and the endangered true fullback—they use vastly different recipes. The Seahawks, the NFL's No. 4 rushing team, feature the explosive burst, lateral agility and tenacity of Marshawn Lynch, pounding behind a zone-blocking line that relies more on dexterity and group-created angles than on sheer force. The Niners, No. 3, showcase Frank Gore, who uses patience, vision and balance behind a man-blocking line that thrives more on power and individually created angles.
Over the past two seasons of this NFC West rivalry the team that has run the best has won. In Week 2 this year, in Seattle, that was the Seahawks, who frequently aligned in three-receiver formations, knowing that the Niners would respond with a 4--2 nickel front. Lynch worked San Francisco's lighter six-man box for 88 yards and a TD on 22 carries in the first three quarters of that 29--3 blowout. But in Week 14, at Candlestick, the Niners adjusted to defend the three-receiver sets with their base 3--4, and they held Lynch to 72 yards on 20 carries over the entirety of the game. On offense they got a vintage 17-carry, 110-yard performance from Gore, including a game-changing 51-yard scamper in the fourth quarter against a nine-man box.
Whichever team runs most effectively in round 3 figures to punch its ticket to Super Bowl XLVIII, especially given that neither team's young QB will be expected to flourish. Seattle's Russell Wilson, while dangerous on the move, has lately devolved into abandoning his progressions too early in his drop-backs. Colin Kaepernick typically shows similar impatience, though he was laudable from the pocket against the Panthers' challenging zones. He'll face even tighter inside zones on Sunday as cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell compress the perimeters. Kaepernick prefers to throw at Seattle's more readable man coverage, but his possession-type receivers can't separate against this crew.
Even if the running attacks do decide this game, both quarterbacks will play a huge part. Wilson accounted for 24.6% of Seattle's rushing production this season, third highest among all quarterbacks. And Kaepernick accounted for 23.8% of San Francisco's ground game, fourth highest. So it could come down to the two QBs after all.
Lynch looked fresh against the Saints; the Seahawks' D lacks a glaring weakness; and CenturyLink Field provides one of the few real home field advantages. Assuming the D can contain Kaepernick's scrambling, Seattle holds a slight edge.
Seahawks 24, 49ers 20
Niners OLB Aldon Smith has 45½ sacks in 50 career games—but he's even better against the run. Smith sets the edge with power, yet he's supple at slipping blocks and corralling ballcarriers. After dismantling Seahawks backup LT Paul McQuistan in Week 2, Smith was quiet against starter Russell Okung in Week 14. It's imperative that he make noise on Sunday.
There will be times when the Seahawks must move the chains through the air. With WR Percy Harvin's availability again in question (concussion), Golden Tate—an after-the-catch threat on cross-field patterns—needs to shake physical coverage more consistently. Wilson also has to be more accurate when targeting the shifty WR on quick slants.
JOHN CORDES/AP (SMITH)
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TATE)