On Saturday, we posted five keys to the NFC title game. Here’s a quick review of how those keys turned out and the impact they played on the final margin:
1, Stopping Frank Gore: We wrote then that “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.” Stopping Gore proved a big deal again — he had just 14 yards on 11 carries. Colin Kaepernick picked up the slack early, with 98 yards rushing in the first half. But once Seattle put a cap on Kaepernick’s running, they put a stop to all of San Francisco’s, as well — the 49ers had just 50 yards on 11 carries in the second half, Kaepernick getting 22 on the one bootleg run in the third quarter. That the 49ers couldn’t run conventionally put more of the onus of the offense on Kaepernick, and that eventually proved the 49ers’ undoing as he had three turnovers in the fourth quarter.
2, Hounding Colin Kaepernick: As we wrote then: “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.” Mark this as another one that proved critical for the Seahawks as Kaepernick, after a solid start, eventually crumbled under the pressure, with three fourth-quarter turnovers helping turn the game Seattle’s way. To be fair to Kaepernick, he played really well early, and didn’t get a ton of help — his receivers dropped at least two passes, and didn’t seem to make great efforts on a couple others. And as noted above, Gore did nothing. But Seattle’s grand plan was to put the game in the hands of Kaepernick and then see if he could withstand the pressure. Ultimately, he couldn’t.
3, Righting Russell Wilson: As we wrote on then: “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.” After a rocky start —- Wilson fumbled the ball away on the first play — he rallied to play 0ne of his best games in a while. He finished 16-25 for 215 yards and a QB rating of 104.6 despite going against one of the best defenses in the NFL and in a highly-pressurized situation, and without Percy Harvin. He didn’t run much — officially, five carries for zero yards. But he got it done through the air when he needed to. Turned out, much of the worry about Wilson was overblown. He’s lead a team to the Super Bowl in his second year. Seems like that should go a long way towards answering whatever questions remained about his ability.
4, Special teams: As we wrote then: “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 again got it done on special teams. Steven Hauschka, continuing a breakout season, was 3-3, and Doug Baldwin had a 69-yard kickoff return that helped quell the momentum San Francisco had gotten after taking a 17-10 lead. Seattle got only a field goal out of his return, but that then gave Seattle the lead when the Seahawks scored a couple possessions later. The 49ers, meanwhile, did nothing of note in the return games. This was another key that Seattle won.
5, Turnovers: As we wrote then: “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.” This is another checkmark for Seattle as the 49ers lost three in the fourth quarter — two Kaepernick interceptions and a Kaepernick fumble, while Seattle had only the fumble lost by Wilson. Seattle entered the game 27-4 under Pete Carroll when winning the turnover battle. Make it 28.
Ultimately, the Seahawks got the better of all five of our keys, all of which helped Seattle win the game, 23-17.