NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: How Many Points Will It Take?

Seahawks and 49ers fans may disagree about many things regarding their rival team, but one thing nobody disputes is two of the best defenses in football will take the field this Sunday. A seven-point deficit against these teams can feel like twenty. Most are expecting a low-scoring game, but there is reason to believe that will not be the case for at least one team.


The Seahawks and 49ers have faced each other six times since Jim Harbaugh entered the fray in 2011. San Francisco has won four of those six games, but have lost two of the last three. The teams have had a different scoring profile when winning. The 49ers have averaged 21 ppg in their wins versus the Seahawks, while Seattle has averaged 35.5 ppg. Wins by the 49ers tend to be much closer affairs, with the average score being 21-14.3. Seattle crushes San Francisco so far when they win by an average score of 35.5-9.8. 

The win profile for the 49ers when they play the Seahawks differs greatly from what it looks like versus other teams. While they average 21 ppg in wins versus the Seahawks, they did not win a single game this season against the rest of the NFL when scoring less than 23 points. Seattle has only given up 23 points or more twice all year, and only once at home (vs TAM). 
Pete Carroll’s team is a little less dependent on scoring to win. They were 3-2 this year when scoring under 23 points. There has only been two home games all season that they have scored less than 23 points. 
Both teams average in the upper-20s when they win, and not surprisingly, score a lot less when they lose. San Francisco, though, has struggled mightily on offense in their four losses, averaging less than double figures (9.8 ppg). Seattle sits in the high teens.

Similar historic rivalry

Comparisons between the Seahawks/49ers and Ravens/Steelers are common. All four teams made their mark with bruising defense. A look back at the years when both teams were competitive could instructive. I looked at 17 games across seven different seasons, including three playoff meetings in 2001, 2008 and 2010. 
That rivalry tended to involve fewer points overall than what the Seahawks and 49ers have done so far. There were a few 9-6 and 13-10 games in the mix, and both teams averaged around 21 ppg when they won. Two things were of most interest to me.
First, I wanted to know the playoff games tended to be higher or lower scoring than the regular season contests. Second, I wanted to know how the home team tended to do in the playoffs.
In each of the three playoff games between the teams, the combined for more points than they had averaged in their two regular season games. That did not always mean that both teams raised their scoring. Pittsburgh won 27-10 back in 2001, but the 37 points combined was higher than the teams season average of 35. The idea that playoff intensity would lead to lower overall scoring did not hold true for at least these three playoff games.
As far as home field, the Steelers had it in each of the three playoff games, and they won all three. The teams had split their regular season games in two of the three years they met in the post-season.

Conference championship history

Since 1990, the winning team from the NFC has averaged 28.7 ppg in their conference championship. Combining both conferences shows the average winning score was 27.9. Only three NFC winners out of 23 (13%) have scored less than 23 points. Two of those came in the last three seasons when the Giants beat the 49ers in 2011 and the Packers beat the Bears in 2010. 
The road team is 10-13 in the past 23 NFC championships. 
Only once in those games did division rivals meet in the conference championship. Green Bay won in Chicago 21-14 in that one.

Best guess

The most interesting number of them all is that the 49ers have only scored more than 19 points against the Seahawks once in their six games. The over/under on this game in Vegas is 39 points. The teams have combined to score an average of 34 points in their two games so far. The increase we saw in scoring between the Steelers and Ravens in the post-season gives further credence to the idea that Vegas is onto something expecting a slightly higher scoring game.
A 49er team that scored 19 would leave Seattle at 20 if Vegas is right. Throw in the odds, and Vegas is expecting a 21-18 win for the Seahawks. 
First team to 20 probably books a trip to New York. Score 23 or more, and it becomes a near certainty.