NFC Championship Predictions: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks

49ers Seahawks
49ers Seahawks
Seattle WA USA San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick 7 is tackled by Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle DAnthony Smith 94 and outside linebacker KJ Wright 50 during the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field Joe Nicholson USA TODAY Sports

The third round is set for the NFL’s best rivalry, as the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will square off for a third time this season, this time with a berth in the Super Bowl on the line.

When these two teams met Week 2 in September, the Seahawks had their way with the Niners at CenturyLink Field. Seattle sacked Colin Kaepernick three times and picked him off thrice, forced five turnovers, and held the offense to 3-of-12 on third-down attempts en route to a 29-3 victory.

In the most recent meeting, this one at Candlestick Park, the Niners edged out the Seahawks for a 19-17 win. San Francisco’s running game was in full effect and proved to be the difference, as Frank Gore rushed for 110 yards, including a 51-yard burst in the final minutes to set up a game-winning Phil Dawson field goal.

The rubber match is set to return to Seattle, where the well-traveled Niners get another shot. The 49ers have won five consecutive road games, including both playoff games at Carolina and Green Bay. Of course, the Seahawks claim to have the best home-field advantage in the league, and their home record speaks for itself. At CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks are 8-1, including last week’s 23-15 victory over the visiting New Orleans Saints.

Russell Wilson’s early season numbers put him in contention for MVP honors, but both he and the Seattle offense have sputtered a bit down the stretch. Wilson has failed to throw for 200 yards since December 2, while the offense overall is averaging 266 total yards over the past five games. During than span, the running game has also been limited to fewer than 90 yards per game, compared to 113 yards per game over the first 11 games.

The Niners, conversely, have been relatively consistent on the offensive side of the ball throughout the year, with the exception of their two-game skid against the Saints and Panthers. Over the past eight games, the 49ers have averaged 348 yards and 25.6 points per game, which not surprisingly has resulted in eight consecutive victories.

Both teams feature young, prolific quarterbacks, but this game inevitably will be decided by defense. Seattle owns the NFL’s No. 1 defense, having not allowed more than 19 points in each of the past six contests and forcing a dozen turnovers over the past four games. Turnovers are key for this unit, as they’ve forced one in all but one game this season. When the ‘Hawks force two or more in a game, they own a 10-2 mark.

The 49ers, on the other hand, take claim to the fifth-ranked defense, rendering opponents to 15.2 points per game over the past 11 contests. And most noticeably, the stark front seven has shut down opposing rushing attacks. San Fran has held five of their past six opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing, which includes Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks who totaled 86 yards against them in their last meeting.

Among the key NFC championship game matchups to focus on will be how the Seahawks secondary contain a 49ers receiving corps that thrived since the return of Michael Crabtree. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas III, and Co. will have to contain Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and Vernon Davis. Then, it’ll be important to see which front seven fares better against the running game. Lynch and Frank Gore have been critical to each team’s offensive success. And finally, it will come down to protection. Kaepernick was sacked thrice in the team’s first meeting, but just twice in the second go-round. Meanwhile, Wilson was sacked a combined six times in the two games. Kaep’s success running the ball has been pivotal during the 49ers’ run, while Wilson combined for 35 yards rushing against the Niners on the year.

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Sam Spiegelman
Sam Spiegelman is a native New Yorker covering sports in New Orleans. He likes Game of Thrones way too much. Tweet him @samspiegs.