The Seattle Seahawks have come a long way since the last time they faced the San Francisco 49ers, who sport a different look of their own from the previous encounter.
While Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has continued to grow each week, the division-leading Niners have turned to their own young quarterback in Colin Kaepernick in an effort to reach the next level.
The two clash this Sunday night in Seattle in a matchup between NFC West rivals with a number of playoff implications.
San Francisco began its current 6-1-1 stretch with a home victory over Seattle on Oct. 18, holding the Seahawks without a touchdown in the 13-6 triumph. Alex Smith was under center for the 49ers and threw a touchdown pass, while running back Frank Gore had 131 yards on 16 carries.
Wilson, meanwhile, completed only nine of his 23 pass attempts and was sacked twice with an interception. Running back Marshawn Lynch ran for 103 yards, but Seattle lost its fourth straight to San Francisco.
Wilson has steadily improved each week since and has thrown 13 touchdowns passes to just two interceptions in seven games since the loss to the 49ers, running for another three scores and logging a passer rating over 100 five times in that span.
The rookie quarterback's play has vaulted the hard-charging Seahawks into the fifth seed in the NFC and at 9-5 the club has already clinched its first winning season since 2007 (10-6). Seattle can officially punch its ticket to the postseason with a victory over San Francisco or losses by Chicago, Minnesota and Washington this weekend.
All three of Wilson's rushing scores came this past Sunday in a 50-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills. He became the first player in NFL history to run for three scores and pass for another in the first half alone.
Wilson ran for 92 yards on nine carries and also passed for another 205 yards, while Lynch had 113 yards on 10 run attempts with a score.
Seattle has scored 131 points during a three-game win streak and became the first team since 1950 to put up at least 50 points in back-to-back games following the previous week's 58-0 rout of the Arizona Cardinals.
"I'm just thrilled that he's been able to continue to grow," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Wilson. "For a long time, we were just trying to get the offense going and not screw it up and make sure he could keep growing."
Seattle has also won five of its past six and is looking to win four in a row for the first time since a string of five straight victories from Nov. 12-Dec. 9, 2007.
Standing in the 'Hawks way are the Niners, who have lost just once since a 26-3 pounding at the hands of the New York Giants on Oct. 14 and clinched a playoff spot after beating the New England Patriots 41-34 last Sunday night.
Kaepernick, in his fifth career start, set a career high with four touchdown passes and threw for 216 yards in the win.
Michael Crabtree paced the offense with 107 yards and two scores on seven receptions. Randy Moss and Delanie Walker each had a touchdown grab, while Gore added 83 yards on 21 carries.
San Francisco certainly didn't cruise as New England scored 24 points in the fourth frame to make the 49ers sweat a bit.
"Great victory. I really liked how our team sucked it up so many times," San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We didn't make all of the plays, but we made a lot of plays. Didn't make most of the plays; they made plays too, but we made more."
San Francisco ended an eight-year playoff drought by winning the NFC West last season and can claim its second division title in a row with a victory over Seattle.
The Niners can also lock up a first-round by with a win and a loss or tie by the Green Bay Packers to the visiting Tennessee Titans.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Wilson's play early in the season left many wondering if Carroll made the wrong move going with the third-round pick over Matt Flynn, who the Seahawks signed as a free agent during the offseason.
Wilson has begun to silence some of his critics, especially when they come to watch him at home. Seattle is 6-0 in its own stadium this season and Wilson has completed 61.3 percent of his passes in those games while throwing for 1,083 yards with 12 touchdowns and one interception.
He is the first rookie since the merger to win his first six games at home and his 402 rushing yards on the season broke the club's franchise record for a quarterback set in 1993 by Rick Mirer (343 yards).
Harbaugh's decision to go with Kaepernick as his starter, even after Smith returned from his concussion that opened the door for the Kaepernick to start, has paid off and given the Niners a duel threat under center.
Kaepernick is 4-1 with a 104.4 rating as a starter, the third-best QB rating since Week 11. Kaepernick is also third in the NFL with just two picks over that same span, displaying some of Smith's ball-controlling skills as well.
The second-year pro did fumble four times in sloppy condition last Sunday night, but the Niners recovered all four.
Though Kaepernick and Wilson both make plays with their legs, Harbaugh wasn't ready to call the two mirror images.
"I think they're two very good quarterbacks, they're different quarterbacks. They're not mirror image," the Niners head coach said. "Not too many quarterbacks I think that I could say are mirror images, even in the entire league. So anyway, the preparation for Seattle and their offense is a separate thing from our offense."
San Francisco's second-ranked defense is being charged by linebacker Aldon Smith, who is tied for the NFL lead with a franchise-record 19.5 sacks. He has 15 on his last eight games and grabbed the first interception of his career last weekend, which helped set up a touchdown.
The Niners' defense is in danger of missing some heart this Sunday if defensive end Justin Smith can't play due to an elbow injury. The high-motored rusher has started in 171 straight games, having not missed a contest since his rookie season in 2001.
Harbaugh said his defensive end will play "if it's humanly possible."
An absence by Smith could open some holes for Lynch, who leads the NFL with 2,320 rushing yards since November of last year. He has topped 100 yards running in six of his past eight games with eight touchdowns in that span.
Seattle's defense has logged six interceptions in its past two games, taking a pair to the end zone. It was safety Earl Thomas' turn versus the Bills, racing his pick 57 yards for a score.
Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons had 2 1/2 sacks last Sunday and has 17 1/2 in his past 21 games.
The 49ers and Seahawks are two red-hot teams that could make some noise in the postseason, assuming Seattle is able to hold onto its wild card spot, or even overtake San Francisco for the NFC West crown.
Carroll sees a lot of his team in what the 49ers do and that is certainly a compliment to his squad.
"I think we are similar," he said. "I can't help but see that, because they believe in playing big-time defense, which we do. They believe in the running game, which we do. They have a very strong emphasis on special teams, which we do. I think that's really the three pillars we are trying to put together here."
The only problem for Carroll is that the 49ers do most of that, if not all, better than the 'Hawks.
Seattle has much more on the line than San Francisco, but that doesn't seem to matter to Kaepernick, who is looking to perfect his game heading into the postseason. He even refused to classify his win over New England as any kind of statement.
"It really isn't going to mean too much if we don't come out and win this week. So, that's what we're focused on right now," he said.
Even Seattle's perfect home record might not save it as San Francisco is 11-4 on the road under Harbaugh since 2011.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 20, Seahawks 13