By Chris Cluff
It doesn’t get much bigger than this for a regular-season game. Division title and playoff spots on the line. Prime-time game. Division rivals. Coaching arch enemies. Hard-hitting defenses, great running games, young quarterbacks playing beyond their years. All of that will be on display when the San Francisco 49ers come to Seattle to face the Seahawks in a huge NFC West duel Sunday night.
While the Hawks can secure a playoff spot with a win and keep themselves in the division conversation, the 49ers can win the West. These teams are in a lot of ways twins. They both have top-five defenses and running games, and their quarterbacks are remarking similar despite their disparate appearances.
While Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has been ascending all season — and is so much better now than he was in Week Seven — San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has burst onto the scene over the last six weeks and become every bit as effective a dual threat as Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton or Wilson.
Kaepernick’s completing 65.6 percent of his passes and has seven touchdown passes and two interceptions — good for a 101.3 rating. He also has run for five touchdowns and is averaging 7.2 yards per carry as the 49ers at times run a quadruple option — backs behind and on either side of Kaepernick in the shotgun. It’s a more complex formation than the Hawks use to run their simple read option play. Harbaugh’s move to Kaepernick from Alex Smith was controversial, but the second-year QB has validated the decision.
Pete Carroll has been impressed, telling reporters, “They’ve been able to keep all of their offense intact it seems, with a little bit more emphasis on him running. … What we see is that the consistency at the quarterback position is there. If you look at their rating, both of those guys are over 100 and 66 percent for Colin and over 70 percent for Alex. They’re really coaching up their spot well, they know what they want, they’re fitting it together great, and he’s giving them the spark that they obviously really favor. They’re loaded at that spot.
“The thing that really jumps out is that Colin has such a strong arm. He really can fire the ball down the field along with they’re play action stuff, and then when he gets out and runs he can really go. So it’s a little more of a run threat (than) with Alex, but other than that it’s just two good guys running the offense. They both have multiple problems that they present to us.”
The big problem in the first meeting was Frank Gore, who always seems to cause problems. He ran for 131 yards on 16 carries, gashing the Hawks inside on trap plays and helping the 49ers run out a close game for a 13-6 win. Now, on top of facing the league’s No. 2 rushing team, the Hawks have to deal with the same kind of dual threat they have in Wilson.
Kaepernick threw four TD passes against New England’s suspect secondary, hitting Randy Moss, Delanie Walker and Michael Crabtree (twice), but Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright doesn’t think the Hawks will have as much trouble against Kaepernick as they will against Gore.
“I think with the option we can handle that fine,” Wright told reporters, per the TNT. “We’ve got a defense for it, so the option I’m not really concerned about it. It’s just the run game with Frank Gore and all of those guys pulling.”
With both quarterbacks playing like seasoned vets, this game figures to be a bit higher scoring than the first one. Kaepernick and Wilson both have figured out how to score points. The 49ers have scored 27 or more in four of the last five. Wilson has led the Hawks to consecutive 50-point games, and the Hawks have not scored fewer than 21 since the Week 7 loss to the Niners.
The teams have the second- and third-ranked defenses in the league and are tied for No. 1 in scoring defense, but both units are banged up. The biggest loss could be 49ers end Justin Smith, who had nine tackles in the first meeting and caused a lot of problems for Seattle’s line. He suffered an elbow injury against the Patriots on Sunday and is questionable for this big game.
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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.