Why I’m Troubled By The 49ers In The NFC Title Game

In a vacuum, the 49ers don’t really scare me.  It’s not like they’re this unstoppable killing machine; they CAN be beaten!  Granted, they haven’t lost since November 17th (giving them an 8-game winning streak heading into this week), but that doesn’t make them any better than us, necessarily.

Remember, going into the playoffs last year, the Seahawks were football’s hottest team.  Yet, all it took was one bad game.  Really, it was one bad half, followed by one bad set of 30 seconds at the end of the game.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the Seahawks have been the league’s best overall team through the regular season.  So, this thing cuts both ways:  the hottest team vs. the best team.  One of them MUST lose.  Tomorrow, I’ll be discussing why the Seahawks will win.  But, right now?  I’ll be discussing why I’m afraid we might lose.

It’s funny, because if the Seahawks had been able to hold off the 49ers and Cardinals in December and won those games, I think we’d all be a lot more confident.  Even if we had just beaten the Cards and had gone 8-0 (and 16-0 over the last two years) at home, I don’t think I’d even bother writing this post about my concerns.  But, the Seahawks lost those two games.  And it feels more important that they lost those two games in December, whereas the 49ers saw their worst two defeats come in the second and third weeks of the season.  Games in September might as well have taken place in 2012!  It’s pretty easy to argue that the Seahawks and the 49ers are vastly different teams now than they were back in September.

The 49ers pass the eyeball test.  They just LOOK like a team that’s getting strong at the right time.  Over the last eight weeks – aside from the game against the Seahawks – I have never had a doubt that the 49ers would win each one of those games.  I haven’t doubted the Seahawks either, but it has looked like the Seahawks have struggled far more in their victories than the 49ers.

What was the one shaky performance we’ve seen out of the 49ers in the last 8 weeks?  The Monday night game against the Falcons.  After they snapped up that onside kick, Matt Ryan had the Falcons driving down for AT LEAST a tying score.  But, they also had time to take the lead and shock the world.  If it wasn’t for a tipped ball on a bad read by the quarterback – intercepted and returned for a touchdown – the Falcons very well could have closed out Candlestick with a home-team defeat.

I’ll gloss over the fact that the one team to look good against the 49ers in the last 8 weeks had a dominating passing attack, and move on to the Seahawks.

We struggled and lost to the 49ers, and we struggled and lost to the Cardinals.  I suppose you can chalk it up to us playing against great defenses, but then how do you explain the game last week?  I know that the numbers have the Saints in the Top 5 among defenses, but there were offensive opportunities to be had, and we just didn’t execute.  If we play this week like we did last week, we’re going to lose to this 49ers team.  How do I know that?  Because this game against the Saints was eerily similar to the game we lost down in San Francisco back in December.

For all intents and purposes, we’re talking about two evenly-matched defenses.  You could argue that the Seahawks are more reliant upon turnovers, but I would counter by saying that our defense is just as rock-solid even if we’re involved in a clean game.  After all, we picked off Carson Palmer four times and still mustered only 10 points in defeat.  Turnovers aren’t everything.  It’s what you DO with those turnovers that matters.

Which means, we’re talking about which offense will play better.  Thankfully, our offense doesn’t have to contend with the full throat of the 12th Man.  That’s an advantage you can’t deny.  So, we have to wonder:  has Colin Kaepernick figured out how to play in this environment?  With all things being equal weather-wise, I don’t expect any freakish bits of nature to throw a wrench into this game.  It’s going to come down to execution.  Can Kaepernick execute?

We know that the pressure of the environment won’t get to him.  This is his second consecutive NFC Championship Game.  He very nearly led his team to a Lombardi Trophy last year (and surely would have nabbed the Super Bowl MVP had they won), so if anything you have to ask if the Seahawks are ready for this type of contest.

Maybe those two things cancel one another out.  Maybe the noise distracts the 49ers a bit.  And maybe the gravity of the game itself leaves the Seahawks stumbling out of the gate.  If all things are equal on the turnover front, and there’s no discrepancy with how the refs call the game, then you’re talking about a VERY close and intense football game.

No one wants to see that, but that’s what we’re going to get, so have your heart medication at the ready.

This game, like most games, will come down to execution on third down, and execution in the two-minute offense.  In our last five games, the Seahawks have gone 19/65 on third down, a paltry 29% conversion rate.  In their last five games, the 49ers have gone 25/63, for a more-robust 40% conversion rate.  Sure, it’s a small sample and all that, but it’s pretty clear which offense is performing down the stretch and which offense is struggling.

It’s easy to look at the last two times the 49ers have come to Seattle, sit back, and predict an easy victory.  We beat them 29-3 earlier this season, and 42-13 late last season, for a two game aggregate of 71-16.  But, those were regular season games.  Nobody will give a fuck about how badly we whipped their asses the last two times if we let them come in here and eke out a 3-point victory this Sunday.

I’ve seen too many games by these Seahawks come down to the final possession of the ball game in the last couple seasons.  Even the best defense in the league – like ours – isn’t infallible.  Remember the Cardinals, the Lions, the Dolphins, and the Falcons in 2012.  Remember the 49ers and Cardinals in 2013.  We had those games in the bag and we let them slip away.

There’s so much riding on this one game.  You’ve got a Seahawks team that’s better than it’s ever been (and maybe better than it ever will be).  You’ve got expiring contracts, ballooning contracts, and little baby contracts who will be due for monster raises.  You’ve got the Super Bowl only one win away.  You remember the Super Bowl, right?  That thing that we’ve all been looking forward to; that thing all the players have been working towards.  And, you’ve got the overall rivalry with these here 49ers.

The winner of this game has a psychological edge that may never be relinquished.  These same Seahawks exited last year’s playoffs convinced that – had they only held on against the Falcons – they would have beaten the 49ers and advanced to the Super Bowl.  That chip immediately goes out the window if we lose this game on Sunday.  If we lose, we revert right back to Little Brother status, while the 49ers get to play in yet ANOTHER Super Bowl.

You know what they call a team that goes 13-3 in the regular season, wins the #1 seed, and then loses before they get to the Super Bowl?  Overrated.  And that’s what we will be.  It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.  We’ve been hearing that all year, right?  Well, we’re nearing the finish.  Now, it boils down to:  will we finish on top?  If we don’t, then we’re just another year closer to death, without a Lombardi Trophy to our credit.

There’s not a lot we can hang our hats on when it comes to what we do better than the 49ers.  These two teams are as evenly matched as they come.  Either we play an even game and it’s decided in the final two minutes, or it’s decided by flukey shit like turnovers, penalties, and non-calls by the refs.  I’m not so sure I’m all that jazzed with any of those scenarios.  There’s no stat that will tell you the Seahawks are more “clutch” or “lucky”.  And even if there is, it won’t matter.  It won’t help me sleep better at night.

I won’t sleep well until it’s all over, and I can relax knowing that all that lays before me is mediocre Mariners baseball.  Sweet, soothing, mediocre Mariners baseball.

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