Control of the NFC West will be on the line tonight when the Seattle Seahawks take on the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. Coming into this season, nobody thought that this division would be as fierce as it has been thus far. In years past, the NFC West was widely regarded as the hands down, no questions asked worst grouping of teams in all of football. Now it consists of some of the most impressive defensive units in the entire NFL.
San Francisco has a lot to prove in this outing. For all the talk about how great this team is, the 49ers have two losses on the year – one coming via a shellacking of epic proportions from the New York Giants. At 4-2, San Francisco has no greater stake to being their division’s power team than the Arizona Cardinals or Seahawks, both of whom own the same mark. Plus, with the Chicago Bears (Nov. 19) and New England Patriots (Dec. 16) still on the agenda (not to mention five more divisional games), it wouldn’t be all that shocking to see the Niners finish with four to five losses if they don't win tonight.
Seattle, meanwhile, enters this one riding high. A week after handing Tom Brady and Co. a 24-23 defeat, the Seahawks have a ton of confidence regarding their ability to compete with the league’s best teams. The passing game is still a concern, obviously, but the defense is legit. Everyone knew it would be improved this season, however, the leaps and bounds by which it has improved has caught even the most loyal of Seahawks supports off guard. The rushing defense especially – man. (Excluding last week’s showing versus an underrated New England rushing attack, of course.)
This game is going to have a serious impact on the layout of the NFC West going forward. Here are three things from each team to keep an eye on tonight.
San Francisco 49ers
1. Can Frank Gore get it going?
Few teams in the NFL are better at defending against the run than Seattle. On the year, this group is giving up only 70 rushing yards per game to their opponents – good for second in the league. That said, San Francisco boasts the top running game in the NFL – averaging 176.8 yards per outing. Something has to give.
You don’t want to make Alex Smith have to play from behind, and the only way to prevent that from happening is by getting the running game going early. As noted by CBS Sports, in the Niners’ four wins, Gore has averaged 16.8 carries and 92.8 yards. In their two losses, however, he averaged a mere 10 carries for 46 yards. The math speaks for itself.
2. Which Alex Smith shows up tonight?
Alex Smith has looked like a whole different person for the last year and change. After being widely dismissed as the bust of all busts, he rejuvenated his career behind a pretty simple concept: don’t turn the ball over.
Through his first five games of the year Smith threw for eight touchdowns and one pick. The result? A 4-1 record. Last week against the Giants he threw for zero touchdowns and three picks. The result? A 26-3 loss at home. Seattle knows how to get after quarterbacks – if Smith gets rattled early, this could be a long night for San Francisco.
3. Can the defense slow down Marshawn Lynch?
San Francisco gives up the ninth fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL. That’s good. Last week versus the Giants, however, this defense gave up 116 yards to Ahmad Bradshaw.
Marshawn Lynch averages 4.2 yards per carry and is known for his ability to just break out in certain games. If the Niners can bottle up Lynch and force Russell Wilson to beat them, it’s a virtual lock that they will emerge from this one with a win.
1. Can Russell Wilson step up on the road?
Like most rookie quarterbacks, Russell Wilson plays noticeably better at home than he does on the road. At home he has recorded six touchdowns and no interceptions (in three games); on the road he has thrown one touchdown and five interceptions (in two games). San Francisco boasts the second best passing defense in the NFL. If Wilson doesn’t find his groove early, things could get out of hand fast.
2. Can this team consistently get good field position?
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seahawks rank third in the league in punt return average and fourth in kick return average. On the flip side, the Niners rank 30th in punt return average allowed and 31st in kick return average allowed. If San Francisco consistently gives Russell Wilson good field position, the youngster might finally be able to get his act together on the road.
3. Can they win at Candlestick?
According to the Mercury News, the Seahawks haven’t won at Candlestick since 2008. That’s a long time. Seattle is really good this year, but it’s no coincidence that only one of this team’s wins came on the road.
A win away from home would legitimize the Seahawks in a pretty huge way.