Sunday, December 23, 2012

Final Pre-Game Thoughts: 49ers @ Seahawks

It is game day, Seattle, and what a clash we have in front of us. The 49ers come to town as the consensus best team in football. The Seahawks enter this game as a team gaining respect, but few would consider them more than a troublesome playoff foe. Seattle has an opportunity to become more than a storyline Sunday night. They can become an unquestioned Super Bowl contender.

This San Francisco team has the respect of every player and every analyst in the nation. They embody the physical, iron man, style that every NFL fan wants in their team. Their defense features arguably the best players at their position at least three spots on the field. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are All-Pro talents that destroy all comers. Aldon Smith is a second-year player challenging the NFL sack record. Their offensive line features more pachyderm than player. They could be used to clear forests when not clearing opposing defenses out of their running backs way. Their second-year quarterback runs like a deer and throws like trebuchet. Their two tight ends are faster than most receivers and block better than many lineman. Their coach, Jim Harbaugh, is auditioning for Cobra Kai Sensei. He will sweep the leg if given the chance. They are, without a doubt, the toughest and most intimidating team in all of football.

They also can be beaten. I know it. You know it. St. Louis surely knows it. The Seahawks have played six teams with winning records this season, and are 5-1 against those teams. Their lone loss, a 13-6 disappointment in San Francisco. The 49ers have played six teams with winning records as well, and are 4-2, losing to the Giants and Vikings.

The Seahawks bring their own array of fighters to the ring. Nobody has a better a combination of throwing arm, legs, preparation and work ethic than Russell Wilson. He has arguably been the best quarterback in football since the last time these two teams played. Seattle's offensive line is thriving in anonymity. They have cleared the way for an average of 243 yards rushing the past three games, and 200 yards/gm over the last six. That is badass blocking. Sidney Rice and Golden Tate have combined for 14 receiving touchdowns. Doug Baldwin is just now healthy, and can slice up defenses every bit as skillfully as Danny Amendola did to San Francisco. Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy are getting more opportunities and are taking full advantage of them. The defense has talent at every level, starting with arguably the best defensive player in the NFL this season, Richard Sherman. Seattle has flashed more depth at cornerback than the Grand Canyon. The linebackers are fast and tough, and have added more speed with Malcolm Smith getting snaps. Do not forget their ginger-locked punter, Jon Ryan, and the efficient special teams. Together, they make the only team in the NFL with a top six ranking in each phase of the game.

Seattle is missing one ingredient. Call it belief, confidence, or faith. They have every part needed to win a championship except the certainty that they are the best team in football. Win today, beat the 49ers, and they will have that last sprinkle of pixie dust needed to propel them into a memorable post-season run. This is not a game they should win. It is a game they can win. The fact that there is real doubt is what makes the outcome so important. Pete Carroll will tell you that confidence is born of accomplishment. Do something once, twice, three times, and you become confident you will do it the fourth time as well. The Seahawks have built confidence in successive weeks, but they must take the first step of beating this 49ers team. Make no mistake about it, this should be the 49ers year.

They are at the right stage of development across their team. They are older than the Seahawks, and have more experience in the playoffs. Look in their eyes, listen to them talk, and you will find a team that already expects to win it all. The Seahawks have an opportunity to plant a seed of doubt tonight. San Francisco is an organization that has been plagued by underachieving the last decade or so. Their fans have become accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to drop, or in some cases, the other punt. Doubt is every bit as powerful as belief. This game is about finding out which team will exit with a winning mindset.

Losing does not end anyone's season, nor does winning guarantee a Super Bowl. It simply makes each more likely, depending on which way your team exits. There are longer term implications as well.

The Seahawks are the younger team, second-youngest in the NFL in terms of starters age, and have improved much more, and at a dizzying pace, compared to the 49ers. Seattle could lose this game, and have a modest playoff run, and still be incredibly bullish about the next decade of football. There is every reason to think the Seahawks will be measurably better next year with a full off-season of development for Russell Wilson, Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wager, to mention a few. That is without even accounting for another John Schneider draft and free agency period. The Seahawks have the look of a team whose arrival is imminent. They are in the process of finding out if they are arriving ahead of schedule.

San Francisco is built to win now. Sure, they have some critical young pieces that will make them competitive for a long time, but there are some pillars on the defensive line, offensive line, secondary and at running back that are due to decline soon. If they are not good enough to beat Seattle now, they may have a hard time doing it for the next five years.

That is why this game will be more than another game. That is why the 49ers will attempt to intimidate after the whistle is blown. That is why Seattle will be measured by their will as much as their talent. The Seahawks will eventually beat the 49ers, and when they do, listen carefully. That sound you hear will be the cracking of San Francisco confidence, followed soon after by the gushing of Seattle's.

At 5:20 PM Pacific time today, two gladiators will clash. Their thunderous collisions will be drown out only by the unrelenting cascade of screams coming from the stands. It will be epic. It will be memorable. It will be football, at its best.


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