Eighty-three days ago, the San Francisco 49ers stepped onto Century Link Field ready to prove their last game against the Seahawks was a fluke. Justin Smith had been injured, they said. Colin Kaepernick had never played in noise like that before, they said. Anquan Boldin was not on the team, and Vernon Davis missed a good chunk of the game due to a concussion. Jim Harbaugh had never lost two straight to a division foe before. He was sure to have made adjustments that would doom Seattle. The events that unfolded over those four quarters of football transformed San Francisco insecurity into a full-blown identity crisis. They were supposed to be the bullies. They were supposed to have the coach that could out-scheme anyone. They were supposed to have the young quarterback that was going to rise above the others. Reality bit them like a saber-tooth tiger, and the wound was nearly fatal. The two teams meet again, months later, with almost nothing tangible at stake. San Francisco has lost one out of every four games to this point. Seattle has lost one out of twelve. Everyone knows the Seahawks are the better team. This game will prove whether the 49ers are still relevant.
San Francisco players have spent the week building this game up. Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis have talked about proving something to themselves Sunday, and their eagerness to prove they are still the team to beat. Even their coach admitted this was a revenge game that his team needs for validation. The problem for them is the reassurances they would get from a win today would be as false as the ones that lured them into a buzzsaw earlier this year.
The oddsmakers are right to have the Seahawks as underdogs in this game. Seattle will have trouble matching the intensity of the 49ers, who have so much more to lose. This will especially be the case when Seattle’s offense is on the field. Running the ball against what will be a revved-up front seven will be among the toughest tasks for the Seahawks all year.
Expect cheap shots and chest thumping. Remember NaVarro Bowman taking his forearm to a sliding Russell Wilson’s head, and then destroying him after handing off the ball on a read-option the next play. That was on the road. They will be emboldened in front of their home fans. Players like Donte Whitner will be looking to assert their manhood, and tend to so after the whistle since they often cannot do it during the play against this Seahawks team. The 49ers have committed more personal fouls than the Seahawks in each of the last four games against Seattle. That is what men do who need to prove something to themselves. Marshawn Lynch and Kam Chancellor don’t need to hit people after the whistle. Their proof comes every time a single man faces them on the field and is lucky to walk away.
Nobody is asking which team has the better running back. Nobody is wondering whether Colin Kaepernick belongs in the MVP race. Nobody can point to a time when a 49er quarterback or wide receiver had their way with the Seahawks secondary the past two years. San Francisco fans and players want to believe that getting Michael Crabtree back changes everything. Davis asked, “Who are they going to double now?” None of you, Vernon. They did not double anyone the first time either. Seattle has matched up one-one-one with 49er receivers and won, just as they have with far better players than what San Francisco runs out there.
The truest barometer of any Seahawks-49ers game is which team wins the rushing battle. The team with the most rushing yards is 6-0 since Harbaugh joined the league. Kaepernick cannot beat the Seahawks unless the 49ers are gaining significant yardage on the ground. Look for San Francisco to pull out all the stops to get yards on the ground.
This 49er offensive line, combined with Kaepernick’s inability to quickly progress through his reads if the initial receiver is covered, has led to a lot of sacks recently. San Francisco has not yet played Seattle when Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennet were all on the field. Joe Staley is scheduled to play, one week after spraining his MCL. All the more reason for the 49ers to be heavily focused on the ground game.
So what you have is one team that has put all of its eggs into this basket, and a game that will be decided on the ground, against a team coming off a short week with much less at stake. The intangibles are heavily in the 49ers favor. That makes a difference in most games between two teams that are evenly matched. Some teams, the elite teams, seem immune to these intangible advantages. When Tom Brady comes to town, there is never a game he loses due to an opponent’s emotional edge. If you beat the Patriots, you must earn it on the field.
The fun aspect of today for Seahawks fans is we find out if the Seahawks are that team now. A loss does nothing to change what Seattle has in front it. It does little to improve the 49ers fortunes, but would allow them to cling to the belief that the teams are even on a neutral field. A win for Seattle does little to change the playoff positioning of either team. But it gives San Francisco nothing to hold onto. That look on Drew Brees’ face after the pummeling on Monday Night Football, the silence across the Saints fan base that followed, that would be making its way South. An Empire is being built. Today we find out if San Francisco is our town now.