As recent as three seasons ago, the NFC West was the laughingstock of the NFL. All four teams finished with losing marks, with the Seahawks “winning” the division with seven victories.
San Francisco exemplified this dreadfulness. A loaded defense was negated by head coach Mike Singletary, who proved unqualified and inept for the position. Worse, former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith seemed like a lost cause. The Niners’ 6-10 record marked the eighth straight non-winning season for the franchise.
While making noise with its upset of New Orleans in the Wild Card round, the forecast was not much sunnier in Seattle. The 2010 campaign was the Hawks’ third straight losing year, and with three-time Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck departing for Tennessee, the organization was without a viable commodity under center. And though he led the team to the playoffs in his first season at the helm, many in the Emerald City questioned if Pete Carroll was the right man for the job.
How times have changed. Once thought to be the black sheep of the NFC, the West division is now the conference’s bastion. Spurred by a stout defense, Arizona is fighting for a playoff spot at 7-5. Although their chances have been encumbered by a season-ending injury to Sam Bradford, the Rams have been no push-over, notching five wins on the season. The Niners, reigning conference champions, are in a position to defend their belt at 8-4, while the Seahawks are shooting for a top seed at 11-1. A Bay Area battle between the latter two serves as our FOX NFL Game of the Week.
Matchup Watch: Colin Kaepernick vs. Seattle defense
Some semblance of Colin Kaepernick will improve the team’s prospects. The defense has been the foundation for San Francisco’s fortunes the past few seasons, and the return of Aldon Smith cements this unit’s reputation heading into the winter. Likewise, in a pass-happy league, the 49ers remain one of the few attacks that can successfully move it on the ground (130.6 yards per outing). Alas, as Kaepernick goes, so go the Niners. In wins this season, the third-year signal caller owns 16 total scores versus three turnovers, averaging 227 passing yards per game and a 62.1 completion percentage. In losses? Not so much: a 2-to-8 TD/TO ratio, hitting just half of his intended targets for a scant 124 passing yards per contest.
Things don’t get easier this week across a defense surrendering just 15.5 points per game (second-best in the NFL). This resistance is spearheaded by a secondary suffocating opposing signal callers to a league-low 177.3 yards per outing, with 16 picks versus 13 touchdowns. For the Seahawks to notch their second win of the season against the Niners, keeping Kaepernick from a strong showing is imperative.
But can the defense maintain its quality of play?
The Seahawks resistance is relinquishing just 284.5 yards per appearance, best in the NFL. Unfortunately, the secondary has taken a hit with suspensions to Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas continue to perform at an All-Pro level, and the front seven’s pressure is a major part of the pass protection’s success. Nevertheless, depth is at the utmost importance during the playoffs, an attribute the Seahawks suddenly find themselves deficient in heading into December.
Speaking of the suspensions…
What, an elite defense spurred by overachieving players has been accused of substance abuse? Get out of town. This is not the first time this nonsense has been associated with this unit, and likely will not be the last. But hey, not like Pete Carroll has a history of shadiness or anything.
Fantasy Impact: Doug Baldwin
As of Thursday morning, Percy Harvin had yet to practice. Taking into account his absence in Week 13, this paints an ominous forecast for the former Vikings wideout this weekend. Also dealing with injury is Golden Tate, who has been the de facto No. 1 target for the Seahawks this season. Enter Baldwin, who’s hauled in 40 receptions for 663 yards for four touchdowns in 2013. Even if Tate plays, a hip injury will encumber his explosiveness, sending an amplified amount of balls in Baldwin’s direction. San Francisco is a tough battle for most receivers, but for those needing a WR3, Baldwin, available in 89 percent of FOXSports.com leagues, is a viable play.
Player Spotlight: Russell Wilson
Known for his proficiency as a game manager, Wilson didn’t fit the bill in the Seahawks first seven games, plagued by Butterfingers Syndrome. Wilson was guilty of eight fumbles in that span, with five recovered by opponents. Given the Wisconsin product also had four picks in said time frame and it was fair to wonder if Wilson’s development had arrested.
The past four games have put those fears to rest. In the past month, Wilson has not put the pigskin on the ground. Better yet, Wilson has found the end zone 15 times in the past six contests, showcasing the aptitude needed to take his club to the Meadlowlands in January. Coupled with the ground stylings of Marshawn Lynch (80.8 yards per game), the Seahawks have more than enough firepower to be a threat on offense.
Seattle is far from infallible, and San Francisco’s defense getting healthy at the right time makes the Niners a legitimate threat to repeat as conference champions. Unfortunately for the Red and Gold, I see the Seahawks coming out on top…Seahawks 24, 49ers 20
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall