Here we go, our weekly Five Keys, only this time, a special NFC Championship Game Edition:
1, Stopping Frank Gore: The stats of San Francisco running back Frank Gore have often been the clearest indicator of which team has had the upper hand in recent Seahawk-49er clashes. Gore was held to 16 yards on nine carries in Seattle’s 29-3 win Sept. 15 over the 49ers at CenturyLink Field, but had 110 on 17 in San Francisco’s 19-17 win over the Seahawks on Dec. 8 at Candlestick Park. Which side wins the battle up front may be more of a factor than anything Gore does — Seattle tackle Brandon Mebane and end Red Bryant simply had their way with the 49ers in the first game and will look to do so again. If Gore does get some room to operate, Seattle will need to watch for his tendency to be patient and try to find cutback lanes, as he did on a 51-yarder that set up San Francisco’s game-winning field goal in the second game.
2, Hounding Colin Kaepernick: Simply put, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had two of the worst games of his career at CenturyLink Field, going a combined 32 of 64 for 371 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions and a lost fumble. That includes a three-interception game in Seattle’s 29-3 win over the 49ers at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 15, the only time Kaepernick has thrown more than one interception in a game in his career. Put another way, four of the 11 interceptions he has thrown in his regular-season career have come in Seattle. In each game, the Seahawks were able to shut down Gore and San Francisco’s running game and put the pressure on Kaepernick, and he didn’t respond well. San Francisco, though, has a healthier and deeper receiving corps now that figures to give Kaepernick more options. Kaepernick comes into the game off two steady, if unspectacular, games in the playoffs, a combined 31-58 for 423 yards, two TDs and one pick in wins at Green Bay and Carolina, while also rushing 15 times for 113 yards.
3, Righting Russell Wilson: While Kaepernick has played pretty well down the stretch, Russell Wilson has been uncharacteristically erratic, including last week’s 9-18 performance against the Saints in which he was simply off target on a few occasions on short, timing throws. Percy Harvin’s absence takes away a receiving threat who could have added some dynamism to the Seattle attack — he had three receptions last week in less than a half before leaving with a concussion that will keep him out against the 49ers. So Wilson will work with the same receiving corps as he has most of the season. He had success in the first game against the 49ers using his legs to create some big plays. The 49ers did a better job containing him in the pocket in the game in San Francisco, something more opponents have been able to do lately. If he’s kept in the pocket, Wilson will have to be more accurate than a week ago. Seattle will need also need some production from Marshawn Lynch to open up the play-action game and big-play opportunities.
4, Special teams: Special teams are always potentially a big key in tight playoff games where every point matters — Seattle’s nine points it got on 3-3 field goals vs. the no points New Orleans got going 0-2 last week speaks loudly to that point. Seattle’s punt team was near-flawless this year. But the only two blocks it allowed this season came against the 49ers. The week two block was a fluke, when players heard a whistle and let up at the snap. But in SF, the Seahawks just simply didn’t block it right — the 49ers overloaded the other side and a defender (Kassim Osgood) just found a way to get through on the weak side. And recall the impact of Red Bryant’s blocked field goal that led to a Richard Sherman touchdown in the 2012 beatdown in Seattle. And Golden Tate’s long punt return was almost the difference in the game in San Francisco. It’s a battle Seattle needs to win.
5, Turnovers: Captain Obvious on this one again, maybe. But the impact of turnovers in recent games in this series is impossible to ignore. The 49ers had five in the 29-3 loss to Seattle in September, four by Kaepernick — they had only 13 in their other 15 games (including just one in the win over the Seahawks in San Francisco). Turnovers, of course, are often caused by winning battles elsewhere, such as Cliff Avril breaking around the end to force a strip-sack, which led to one SF turnover in the first game, or Richard Sherman with blanket coverage and an acrobatic leap to make an interception, which led to another SF turnover in the first game. Given how battle-tested the 49ers have become, winning two straight playoff games on the road and three straight overall, you wouldn’t expect them to get real rattled by the surroundings. Still, the impact of the 12th Man is also hard to ignore, and it often helps the defense win a play or two that leads to a mistake/turnover by the opponent. Having that edge in a game like this is why Seattle worked so hard to get the home field advantage.