The San Francisco 49ers have already earned themselves a place in the upcoming NFC playoffs, while the Seattle Seahawks are making a strong case for proving they belong in the tournament with an outstanding recent stretch.
The surging Seahawks try to continue their belated push in Saturday's divisional bout with the NFC West champion 49ers, who head to CenturyLink Field for this key Week 16 divisional matchup with designs on capturing a coveted postseason bye.
San Francisco enters the season's final two games tied with New Orleans for the NFC's No. 2 overall seed, which guarantees an off week in the first round of the conference playoffs, but currently holds the edge on the Saints by virtue of a superior conference record. A victory over the Seahawks, coupled with a New Orleans loss to fellow contender Atlanta on Monday, would secure the 49ers a spot in the top two.
Obtaining that win could be tough to come by, however. Seattle has experienced a dramatic turnaround over the second half of this 2011 campaign, ripping off victories in five of its last six games after a rough 2-6 start. The Seahawks return home riding a season-high three-game winning streak in which they've scored 30 or more points on each of those occasions.
A playmaking defense and hard running from feature back Marshawn Lynch has carried Seattle back into the playoff mix, though seizing a Wild Card berth still remains a long shot. Trailing both Atlanta and Detroit by two games in the standings, the Seahawks will have to win both this week's tilts and at Arizona while both the Falcons and Lions lose both their remaining tests.
Lynch has rushed for over 100 yards in five of the last seven weeks and has scored a touchdown in a franchise record 10 consecutive games, but was held to a mere 42 yards on 20 carries in last weekend's clash at slumping Chicago. His limited output was offset by another opportunistic performance by the defense, however, with Seattle scoring 21 points off five Bears turnovers en route to a 38-14 rout.
Lineman Red Bryant and cornerback Brandon Browner both had interception returns for touchdowns in the second half as the Seahawks outscored Chicago by a 31-0 margin after the break. Seattle now has amassed a league-best 18 takeaways over its six-week tear and scored three defensive touchdowns over its last three outings.
"The turnaround has been remarkable," said Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. "[Turnover margin] is absolutely the number one thing in our philosophy of how to play the game for us. It's all about the ball. The guys are doing it. Really, I think we've had two turnovers in the last four games on offense. That is big-time execution and discipline and focusing on the things that are really important to winning ball games."
Carroll's charges will now try to continue that success against a San Francisco outfit that tops in the NFL with a plus-25 turnover ratio, while Lynch will be facing a rugged 49ers defense that's yielding a league-low 71.5 rushing yards per game and hasn't allowed an individual 100-yard rusher in 36 consecutive contests.
San Francisco, which also leads the league in fewest points allowed (13.2 ppg), was a force on that side of the ball once again in Monday's 20-3 ousting of playoff-bound Pittsburgh. The Niners held the Steelers to 287 total yards and induced four turnovers, including three interceptions of a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger.
The 49ers also allowed just 219 total yards and had three takeaways in a 33-17 triumph over the Seahawks at Candlestick Park in the season opener, with Lynch managing only 33 yards on 13 attempts.
The Seahawks hold a slight 13-12 edge in their all-time series with San Francisco, with the teams having split the home-and-home set in each of the past three seasons. Seattle has come out on top in the last two meetings held at CenturyLink Field, following up a 20-17 win in 2009 with a 31-6 shellacking of the Niners in Week 1 of the 2010 season. San Francisco last prevailed in Seattle via a 33-30 overtime shootout in 2008 and hasn't swept the Seahawks in a season since 2006.
San Francisco's besting of the Seahawks back in September marked the first time that Carroll and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh faced one another in an NFL game, but the two went head-to-head three times in the college ranks when Carroll was at the helm of USC and Harbaugh at Stanford. Harbaugh's Cardinal won two of those encounters, including a 24-23 upset of the then-No. 2 ranked Trojans in 2007 that snapped USC's 35-game home win streak.
Carroll, once San Francisco's defensive coordinator from 1995-96, is 2-2 against his onetime employer as a head coach. The first of those victories came in 1998, when he was then in charge of the New England Patriots.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
The San Francisco offense isn't renowned for its explosive qualities, having averaged a modest 307.4 total yards per game (25th overall) on the season, but the Niners run the ball well and keep mistakes to a minimum, as evidenced by the team's NFL-low total of 10 turnovers. Quarterback Alex Smith (2752 passing yards, 16 TD) has been intercepted only five times in his 14 starts and displayed sound decision-making under center, and the former No. 1 overall draft has two good targets to throw to in talented wide receiver Michael Crabtree (59 receptions, 2 TD) and physical tight end Vernon Davis (55 receptions, 6 TD). San Francisco's game plan is usually centered around running back Frank Gore (1119 rushing yards, 7 TD, 16 receptions), however, with the five-time 1,000-yard rusher serving as the bell cow for a ball-control attack that's fifth in the league in run attempts and averages 125.0 yards per game on the ground (9th overall). The Niners do have some issues to sort out prior to the playoffs, as the team ranks next-to-last in third-down conversions (29.3 percent) and 30th in red-zone touchdown percentage (37.5 percent). San Francisco has also given up 39 sacks as a team, though Smith wasn't taken down at all by the Steelers on Monday.
Count on Gore being in line for another heavy workload this week, as the Seahawks have been simply stifling against enemy quarterbacks during their current hot stretch. Seattle has allowed a scant 151.3 net passing yards over its last three games, albeit against a questionable crop of signal-callers, and recorded nine interceptions over that span after snaring four against the wayward Bears. The 6-foot-4 Browner (47 tackles, 6 INT, 20 PD), who had spent the previous five seasons toiling in the CFL, has come up with five picks over the last four weeks as the big-play specialist of a young secondary that's also gotten strong play out of second-year safety Kam Chancellor (79 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT) and rookie corner Richard Sherman (44 tackles, 3 INT, 14 PD), while linebackers David Hawthorne (95 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) and Leroy Hill (80 tackles, 3 sacks) and nose tackle Brandon Mebane (47 tackles) head up a quality run-stopping group that's limited the opposition to an average of 3.7 yards per attempt on the year. The Seahawks haven't been great at pressuring the passer, though disruptive end Chris Clemons (40 tackles, 11 sacks) has reached double digits in sacks for a second straight season and fellow veteran Raheem Brock (25 tackles, 3 sacks) is coming off a two-sack outburst against Chicago.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle has hitched its offensive wagon squarely to Lynch (1011 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 12 total TD) over the season's second half, and the powerful back has certainly delivered with five 100-yard efforts while garnering 20 or more carries in seven straight weeks. It will interesting to see if those plans change against San Francisco's stout run defense, which would place more responsibility on quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (2706 passing yards, 12 TD, 12 INT). The offseason addition has overcome a shaky early start with three consecutive solid showings in which he hasn't had an interception, and his 19- of-31, 227-yard effort against the Bears with Lynch not much of a factor was perhaps his best one this year. A revamped receiving corps has been paced as of late by second-year wideout Golden Tate (27 receptions, 3 TD) and undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin (46 receptions, 3 TD), a former pupil of Harbaugh at Stanford who came through with 83 yards and a score on four catches in these teams' first meeting. He's questionable for Saturday's game, however, after hurting his ankle in last Sunday's win. The offensive line has seen its share of injuries as well, with three opening-week starters done for the season, and the unit permitted five sacks to the Niners in September and a concerning 42 over the course of the year.
Lynch and Seattle's rebuilt line will both have their work cut out for them against San Francisco's sensational front seven, which may have All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis (93 tackles, 2 sacks, 12 PD) back in the fold this week after missing the last two games with a hamstring strain. His presence alongside young counterpart NaVorro Bowman (121 tackles) and high-motor lineman Justin Smith's (50 tackles, 6.5 sacks) ability to anchor are the main reason why the 49ers are surrendering a league-low 3.3 yards per carry to opposing backs. The defense will give up some yards through the air, with Roethlisberger compiling 330 passing yards in a losing cause on Monday, but possesses two excellent ball-hawks in cornerback Carlos Rogers (37 tackles, 6 INT, 17 PD) and free safety Dashon Goldson (61 tackles, 6 INT) and rarely breaks within the red zone, with the Niners allowing an NFL-best 34.5 percent touchdown rate inside their own 20-yard line. San Francisco also sports one of the game's premier young pass rushers in rookie standout Aldon Smith (31 tackles), who's generated 13 sacks in 14 professional games, while Justin Smith and outside linebacker Parys Haralson (28 tackles, 2 sacks) both got to Jackson twice back in Week 1.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Quarterback play. With Lynch likely to find plenty of clogged lanes against the San Francisco defense, Jackson's going to have to be more than merely a caretaker for the Seahawks to continue their streak and must continue to be careful with the football. While Alex Smith has flourished in essentially a game-managing capacity of his own for the 49ers, the formerly-maligned quarterback's numbers are noticeably better at home than on the road, and he'll be going up against a Seattle secondary that's much improved from when these teams last met.
Turnovers. The matchup between San Francisco's incredibly judicious offense and a Seattle defense that's been the best in the league at causing mistakes over the second half is maybe the most intriguing one of this game. The Seahawks are 5-1 this season when winning the turnover battle and 0-4 when coming out on the negative side of the ledger, and their three giveaways to the 49ers in the opener was a contributing factor to that loss.
Special teams. One of the stars of the Week 1 showdown between these clubs was 49ers return man Ted Ginn Jr., who took back both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of San Francisco's victory that day. He's doubtful to suit up this week due to a sprained ankle, however, which takes away one of the team's valued weapons.
With the way both these defenses have been performing, anything other than a low-scoring struggle would be a surprise. If that's indeed the case, San Francisco's longstanding issues of converting in the red zone and sustaining drives could very well come into play here, and the NFC West champs have lost two straight nail-biters on the road in large part because of missed opportunities. While Lynch stands a very good chance of being neutralized in this game and Seattle's protection problems are a big concern, the Seahawks' defense should be able to keep them in it until the end. And if it's able to continue its trend of coming up with game-changing plays, that could very well tip the scales in favor of a home team that's quietly been playing playoff- caliber ball for quite some time now.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 16, 49ers 13