Published January 16, 2014
| Sports Network
(SportsNetwork.com) - Football's fiercest rivalry takes center stage in the NFC Championship Game when the San Francisco 49ers visit the Seattle Seahawks.
"I think it's the best rivalry in football right now," Hall of Fame quarterback and current FOX television analyst Troy Aikman said.
It only seems like you can't throw an NFC Championship title game without the 49ers. The Niners will be making their third straight appearance in the conference's title tilt and their 15th overall since 1970. This one shapes up as one of San Francisco's most difficult to date, however. The last two times the 49ers have visited their NFC West-rivals, they've been outscored by a combined 71-16 margin.
The 49ers are hardly the only team to struggle against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, though. Seattle is an imposing 16-1 in front of "The 12th Man" since quarterback Russell Wilson took over the team at the beginning of the 2012 season, a mark which includes a 23-15 win over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round of NFC playoffs last weekend.
The NFC's No. 1 seed moved within one game of a trip to the shadow of Manhattan for Super Bowl XLVIII after holding off the Saints on a stormy and soggy day.
Seattle used a familiar formula to reach the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the 2005 season. Workhorse running back Marshawn Lynch churned out 140 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, while the NFL's top- ranked defense kept Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints under wraps with another stifling performance.
Wilson was just 9-of-18 for 103 yards and ran a Seahawks offense which generated next to nothing for much of the second half, but the group had a turnover-free game as Lynch and the defense made a 16-0 halftime lead stand up.
"Whoever is coming in here, just be ready to play," Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant said after the win. "Because we damn sure will be."
The 49ers are the ones coming in after advancing by taking their second straight playoff game on the road, a 23-10 decision over Carolina.
Undeterred by the worst statistical game of his young career against the Panthers two months ago, Colin Kaepernick was efficient when he had to be this time around and the stout San Francisco defense did the rest.
Kaepernick completed 15-of-28 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score. During San Francisco's 10-9 home loss to Carolina on Nov. 10, he was just 11-of-22 for a season-low 91 yards with an interception, was sacked a career-high six times and rushed for just 16 yards.
The 49ers paired touchdowns at the end of the first half and beginning of the third quarter to jump out to a 20-10 lead. Their defense then held the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton scoreless in the second half.
Anquan Boldin caught eight passes for 136 yards and Frank Gore carried the ball 17 times for 84 yards for San Francisco.
"It was a physical struggle," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I'm proud of our team for prevailing."
This marks the first postseason meeting between these two clubs. The all-time regular-season series is deadlocked at 15-15 but the 49ers have won five of the past seven meetings. The Seahawks, though, have won four of their past five at home versus San Francisco, outscoring the 49ers 139-58 in those games.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
If anyone can challenge the Seahawks in the Pacific Northwest it's the 49ers, who could be the most talented team in football and come in riding an eight- game winning streak.
"We're the two teams that everybody was looking at from the beginning," Kaepernick said. "It's going to be a knockout drag-out game. We're ready to go."
They better be.
Over the past two seasons at CenturyLink Field, Seattle has beaten its opponents by an average score of 29.4 to 12.9 and has a plus-26 turnover differential. It's been even worse for San Francisco, which has been trumped by an average of 35.5 to 8.0 in its last two trips north.
"It's a big deal to play here," Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said. "We've earned that right to play them at home, to be on our home field in front of our fans."
The famous "12th Man" in the Emerald City produced another small earthquake during last Saturday's win over the Saints, Seattle's sixth straight home postseason win.
"We understand that we have to go up there in a hostile environment with a really good football team," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "That's OK with us. We understand what we have to do."
One of the main reasons San Francisco comes in so confident is the presence of star wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who has 30 receptions for 435 yards in seven games since returning from an offseason Achilles injury.
The Niners haven't lost with Crabtree in the lineup this season and his ability to create outside the numbers has made things far easier on Kaepernick, who tends to pick up his play in the postseason.
A second-year starter, Kaepernick is now 4-1 in the playoffs after road wins in Green Bay and Carolina, with his only loss coming in last season's Super Bowl.
Overall, the dual-threat Kaepernick has thrown for six TDs and ran for another four in the postseason. He has a 92.7 passer rating in the playoffs and has rushed for 377 yards at nearly 10 yards a clip.
"We're a different team than we were the first time we played up there," said Kaepernick, who threw for just 127 yards, three interceptions and was sacked three times in a 29-3 setback back in September.
That's easy to say but figuring out a way to attack the Seahawks' top-ranked defense, which has allowed just 14.4 points and 273.6 yards per contest, is another matter.
"We're not going to let anybody come in our way and take this from us," Seattle Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor said.
Offensively, the Seahawks will continue to lean on Lynch, who tends to turn it on in the playoffs, where he has averaged 5.2 per rush and scored five TDs in five career postseason contests, including three different 130-or-more efforts.
"Marshawn battles every week and when you give him chances, he makes play," said Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. "He just continues to crank it out for us."
Lynch has also piled up 112.5 yards and scored four TDs in four home games versus a San Francisco defense which has allowed 15.5 points and 304.9 yards per game this season.
"Long story short ... they know us, we know them," 49ers All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "We got to go there. We all know the history. But this is the Super Bowl."
Wilson may be slumping but he has also excelled against the Niners at home, passing for five TDs and compiling a 101.4 passer rating.
"To be in the NFC Championship Game, it means a lot," the Seattle QB said. "It's a testament to our hard work and preparation as a whole. The thing for us is that we haven't done anything yet. We have to stay focused and play the best football that we can play."
The presence of oft-injured wide receiver Percy Harvin would certainly help Wilson but the playmaker suffered a concussion against the Saints and is iffy for this week's contest.
There is a reason you play 16 regular-season games and getting home-field advantage means everything for Seattle.
If this game is in San Francisco or on a neutral field you would almost have to pick the 49ers, who have taken off with Crabtree back in the lineup. That said, 16-1 over the past two seasons is as daunting as it sounds and don't be surprised if the people of Seattle set off the Richter scale yet again while celebrating a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.
"The Seattle Seahawks want to bring something special to the city," Wilson said. "To do that, we have to play the best 60 minutes of our lives."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 21, 49ers 17