Looking ahead to 49ers-Seahawks NFC title game
BY TOM PELISSERO USA Today January 12, 2014 10:58PM
USA TODAY Sports NFL writer Tom Pelissero gives his five first impressions on the NFC Championship matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seawhawks:
1. The Seahawks need more from QB Russell Wilson, who was antsy and missed several easy throws in Saturday’s win against the New Orleans Saints. Bad weather or not, Wilson hasn’t looked like a franchise quarterback over the past five games, with four touchdowns, three interceptions and 788 yards. He needs to settle down and use his mobility to slide around the pocket, rather than always looking to bail. If WR Percy Harvin (concussion) doesn’t play, the Seahawks will be back to an average receiver group. His short return Saturday was enough to show that defenses respect the threat his speed poses.
2. The 49ers might have the best front seven in football now that OLB Aldon Smith is back in form, and they have seemingly been preserving veteran DE Justin Smith for the stretch run. It’s strength against strength with one of the NFL’s top run-stopping units going against a solid Seahawks line and their best offensive player, RB Marshawn Lynch, who battered the Saints into submission. The 49ers held the Carolina Panthers running backs to 33 yards on 13 carries in Sunday’s win and made a pair of goal-line stands.
3. The Seahawks defense is loaded, thanks to smart drafting and short-term investments in the likes of DEs Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who both factored against the Saints. CB Richard Sherman might be the best young defensive back in the NFL, and FS Earl Thomas is a difference-maker, too. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is highly aggressive; players follow his lead. It’s an intimidating group at raucous CenturyLink Field, where 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has five turnovers in two starts.
4. The 49ers are among the best at adapting their offensive approach to the opponent based on matchups. They want to bully teams with downhill RB Frank Gore. But they showed again Sunday they’re more dangerous in the passing game now that possession WR Michael Crabtree is 100(PERCENT) healthy, freeing space inside for WR Anquan Boldin and vertical threat TE Vernon Davis. Keeping Kaepernick in the pocket and going through his progressions remains paramount. He does most of his damage once things break down.
5. This is the showdown everyone was waiting for since camps opened. They’re probably the most complete teams in the NFL. They know each other inside and out. Coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll have a long history. Harbaugh’s 49ers enter as the hotter team, having won eight in a row, including the past three on the road. They’re also more experienced in this position, with three consecutive NFC title game appearances. But the Seahawks have won the last two meetings in Seattle by a combined 71-16.