By Chris Cluff
So which San Francisco 49ers team will the Seattle Seahawks see Thursday in their big NFC West showdown in San Francisco: the Niners who had rolled the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets by a combined score of 79-3 or the Niners who just got trounced by the New York Giants 26-3 at home?
The loss to the Giants was a major letdown by the 49ers, who were seeking a little retribution for getting bounced by them in the NFC title game in January.
The 49ers were not even in Sunday’s game. San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith threw three interceptions in a game for the first time in three years and was sacked six times while the offense ran for just 80 yards. The defense, meanwhile, gave up a 100-yard rusher at home for the first time since 2009 as Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 116 yards and a touchdown.
It was a puzzling performance by a San Francisco team that had just blasted the Bills 45-3 while setting a franchise record with 621 yards total offense and becoming the first team in NFL history with 300 passing yards and 300 rushing yards in a game.
If the Giants could shut down the 49ers, what might the Seahawks do?
There’s not a lot of time to prepare for this game, but — other than the physical recovery time between games — that isn’t as important in a contest between teams that know each other so well.
Jim Harbaugh’s team swept the Seahawks in 2011, including a 19-17 win in Seattle on Christmas Eve. David Akers kicked four field goals and the 49ers forced a scrambling Tarvaris Jackson to fumble as he tried to rally the Seahawks with a minute left in that game.
The Seahawks lost the first meeting on special teams as Ted Ginn Jr. returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in a 33-17 win in San Francisco.
These teams are eerily similar — both built on stout defense and running games. The Niners’ defense is back in the No. 1 spot after Tom Brady’s big passing day bumped the Seahawks to fourth. They go second and third in scoring defense, with the Hawks giving up 15.5 points per game and the Niners yielding 15.7.
Despite being held to 80 yards by the Giants, the 49ers still lead the NFL in rushing at 176.8 yards per game. Seattle, which has struggled the past two weeks, is seventh at 131 per game.
The biggest difference in these teams is the experience level of the quarterbacks. While the Seahawks are going with a rookie who is growing each week, the Niners generally have been run efficiently by Smith. Smith is playing with a sprained middle finger on his throwing hand, but he said it was not a factor in last week’s loss.
The 49ers also have been using second-year QB Colin Kaepernick as an option. He ran five times for 50 yards and a touchdown against the Jets and carried four times for 39 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo. Kaepernick threw the ball just once in each of those games. He dropped back nine times against the Giants, hitting 4-of-7 passes for 82 yards but also getting sacked twice and running just twice for six yards.
The Seahawks contained Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, so Kaepernick should not be a big challenge. The greater focus will need to be Smith and running back Frank Gore, who has gashed the Seahawks many times in the past and is averaging a career-best 5.4 yards per carry this season.
The 49ers might be without left tackle Joe Staley, who left in the third quarter Sunday with a concussion. If he can’t play, it might make things tougher for the 49ers’ offense.
The winner of this game will move to 5-2, with the early edge in a division race that figures to come down to these two teams (Arizona is fading after a 4-0 start). The Hawks and 49ers won’t meet again until Week 16.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.