A second straight NFC West title for San Francisco seemed like a foregone conclusion to just about everyone but Russell Wilson and the surprising Seattle Seahawks have other ideas.
The Seahawks visit the Bay Area on Thursday night to take on a Niners club attempting to rebound from their worst loss in the Jim Harbaugh era.
San Francisco ran away with the West last season and was expected by most to enjoy similar success in 2012. The 49ers have played extremely well at times but now finds itself deadlocked with both Seattle and Arizona at 4-2 heading into Week 7.
A short week of preparation was made easier for the Seahawks last Sunday when Wilson threw for a career-best 293 yards, and fired the game-winning touchdown to Sidney Rice with just over one minute left in regulation, sending the Seattle over the New England Patriots, 24-23, in a Week 6 matchup.
The rookie ended 16-of-27 with three touchdowns for the Seahawks, who beat the Patriots for the first time since 1993 and have taken four of their last five overall since a season-opening loss at Arizona.
"We just focused in," said Wilson. "The key was to continue to stay focused on what we can control and play one play at a time. Stay in the moment and stay in the now. And we definitely did that. The defense made some huge stops and we got the opportunity we did and came up big."
The rangy Rice totaled 81 yards on three receptions, although Marshawn Lynch was held to 41 yards on 15 carries as Seattle pulled into a three-way tie atop the NFC West standings thanks in large part to a season-high 368 yards of total offense.
"We got some offensive plays thanks to the offensive line," Wilson admitted. "Practice was sharp this week, and the coaches really did a good job getting us focused. Guys worked hard this week. Every team tries to slow down Lynch, but at the same time, it opens opportunities for us."
After the thrilling win cornerback Richard Sherman even posted a picture on his Twitter account showing him taunting Tom Brady.
"It's not a shock for us," Sherman said of the Seahawks' success. "We believe we have a great ballclub and we believe we can play with anybody. NFL Network and all of these pundits think they know everything and we keep shutting them up week, by week, by week, by week. They thought (New England) was the greatest ball club to step on the earth."
After suffering a 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants in last season's NFC Championship Game, the narrative in the Bay Area before Week 6 was unfinished business. Things were certainly finished, but it was the Super Bowl champion G- Men who had San Francisco tapping out during a convincing 26-3 win.
During a Week 5 45-3 rout of the Buffalo Bills, the 49ers became the first team in NFL history with 300-plus yards passing and 300-or-more yards rushing in a game. It tallied just 314 yards of total offense against the Giants.
Alex Smith, who came into the game with just one pick on the season, had his first three-interception game since Dec. 20, 2009 and was sacked six times. He finished with 200 yards through the air on 19-of-30 efficiency for the 49ers in the setback.
"In some ways it is nice to have a short week," Smith said. "We've got to just move a long from this one and get ready for a big division game."
"We didn't do enough," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh added. "We put ourselves in a position we couldn't come back from, more turnovers than we're accustomed to. Plan-wise, it wasn't the right one. We'll try to figure out what the next one will be."
The overall series between the 49ers and Seahawks is tied at 13 games apiece, with San Francisco winning each of the last three contests.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Seahawks own of the NFL's best homefield advantages and tend to be far more buttoned down as the visitor. Coach Pete Carroll will want to rely on Lynch and his defense in San Francisco and hope Wilson will effectively manage the game.
Seattle probably has the best defensive backfield in football with safeties Kam Chancellor, who will play despite a balky ankle, and Earl Thomas backing up lengthy corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman.
"It will be a real football fight Thursday night," Harbaugh said when talking about Seattle. "We'll anticipate that and prepare for them. They're very good, very good football team in all phases. They play hard, they play fast. They set the tone with their defensive line. Linebackers are rangy, athletic, fast. Outstanding safeties, two corners are playing extremely well. So, multiple challenges. Really good football team."
The 49ers don't really have a consistent threat outside the numbers although Randy Moss, who just became the fourth player in NFL history to surpass 15,000 receiving yards, has to be accounted for.
The only real matchup threat San Francisco has in the passing game is tight end Vernon Davis but the Seahawks are better equipped for him that most because of the aforementioned strong safety play.
Running won't be easy either since the Seahawks rank second in the NFL with 70.0 rushing yards allowed per game and Frank Gore will be running behind a line missing Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, who suffered a concussion against New York. Gore, however, has the highest single-game rush totals in 49ers history (212 and 207 yards) and both have come vs. Seattle, although not these Seahawks defensive unit.
A wild card could be Niners backup QB Colin Kaepernick, at athletic, wildcat type signal-caller who has been getting more and more situational time.
"We have been using Colin as an added weapon," Harbaugh said. "We feel like we're getting plenty of everything from Alex Smith. We'll leave it there."
The other side of the ball looks like a nightmare for Seattle. Wilson hasn't been nearly effective on the road and the 49ers have a stellar defensive unit led by All-World defensive lineman Justin Smith and athletic linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman
In fact, despite their struggles against the Giants, San Francisco replaced Seattle atop the NFL's defensive standings. The 49ers allow 275.8 yards per game while the Seahawks fell from No. 1 to fourth (294.7) after giving up a season-high 475 yards to the Patriots
Lynch, who fell from first to third in the NFL rushing standings, after his season-low 41 yards last week will be counted on the move the chains and open up the kind of one-read, play action that young quarterbacks can succeed at. He has traditionally struggled against the strong San Francisco run defense, netting just 62 yards on 23 carries in two games at Candlestick Park.
Outside Rice is the type of lengthy receiver who can give any defense fits in a jump ball situation.
This contest pits strength against strength as both offenses will be trying to solve two of the NFL's best defensive units.
Smith, who is s 7-1 in past eight starts against NFC West teams, has a vast experience edge over Wilson and is the less likely to make the game-changing mistake. Meanwhile, the 49ers haven't dropped consecutive games since Dec. 16-26, 2010, and will be shooting for a fourth straight win over the Seahawks at Candlestick. San Francisco has outscored Seattle 96-48 over that stretch.
The 49ers' next three games are against division foes and Harbaugh's club will be trying to set the tone in the division with this one.
"We need to go out and work and get ready for the Seahawks," said 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers. "We've got a lot of work to do. This game is going to count more because it's in the division. This is our division to win."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 24, Seahawks 17