When the NFL schedule was released in April, it seemed all too easy to circle a mid-December meeting between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as the game that would decide the NFC West.
Instead, it might serve as the unofficial end of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco.
With their defense suddenly back in championship form, the red-hot Seahawks look to continue their postseason push Sunday by dealing what would essentially be a knockout blow to the crumbling 49ers’ hopes of a fourth straight run to the playoffs.
The NFL set up last season’s NFC championship game participants to meet twice in an 18-day stretch beginning on Thanksgiving, but that holiday gathering had little resemblance to the Seahawks’ thrilling 23-17 win that sent them to the Super Bowl.
Seattle (9-4) outgained San Francisco 379-164 in a 19-3 victory that broke a second-place tie behind Arizona, and the momentum of that win seemed to continue last Sunday. The Seahawks dominated first-place Philadelphia throughout, outgaining the Eagles 440-139 in a 24-14 win.
The stench of a performance against Seattle that 49ers CEO Jed York deemed "unacceptable" on Twitter seemed to follow San Francisco (7-6) last week as well. The 49ers managed only 248 total yards in a 24-13 loss to woeful Oakland, the sixth time in the past seven games they’ve failed to score more than 17 points.
What’s followed has been more speculation about Harbaugh’s future – he wouldn’t discuss an NFL Network report that the University of Michigan, his alma mater, reached out to him – and plenty of focus on Colin Kaepernick, who threw a pair of interceptions a week after being picked off twice by Richard Sherman.
”My priorities are No. 1, winning football games, No. 2, with the welfare of our players, coaches and our staff, and lastly is what my personal and professional future is,” Harbaugh said. ”My priorities are winning games.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll happens to think San Francisco has done anything but quit on Harbaugh.
"That’s why they’re so dangerous coming in right now, because of his leadership and his toughness about the way he runs his program," Carroll said. "All the other stuff you guys thought was going on, there ain’t much to it. Really, it’s two football guys going at it and two guys who love to compete and battle and there’s nobody I’d rather play."
A fourth straight loss in Seattle should all but eliminate the 49ers, while the Seahawks will soon have their eyes on a matchup that could very well decide the West winner. Seattle visits first-place Arizona in Week 16 with a chance to sweep the Cardinals and earn the head-to-head tiebreaker.
”I think our identity is showing up and there’s a lot more to prove,” said Russell Wilson, who’s accounted for five touchdowns without an interception and has a 110.6 passer rating during the Seahawks’ three straight wins. ”We’re high on confidence because of what we do on a daily basis.”
What Seattle’s done better than anyone of late is run the football, averaging 204.6 yards per contest and 5.36 per carry over the past five games. The Seahawks have held the ball for at least 35 minutes in the last four, a stretch in which they’ve run 83 more plays (274-191) than the opposition.
That, of course, has helped keep the defense off the field, but Seattle’s hardly complaining when that suddenly healthy group is out there. Linebacker Bobby Wagner has played the last three games after missing five, and safety Kam Chancellor has been back for the past four. The Seahawks have allowed 107.5 passing yards per game in that stretch – 73.5 fewer than anyone else in football.
"Every corner we have in here, every (defensive back), it’s just greatness in that room,” free safety Earl Thomas said. ”… Everybody is absorbed in that room because we really love what we’re doing, we love the environment.”
Seattle has allowed an NFL-low 12 pass plays of 25 yards or more, and it’s hard to imagine that number increasing against a 49ers team that hasn’t had any in the past two weeks. San Francisco has just one play through the air of that length in its last 10 quarters against Seattle, a 26-yard TD to Anquan Boldin in the NFC title game.
Despite Kaepernick’s struggles, Frank Gore says the 49ers’ QB hasn’t lost the locker room.
”He wants to be great,” Gore said. ”When things aren’t going your way, you carry that on your shoulders. I understand it.
"He’ll be fine. … He’s got our respect in here.”
Kaepernick has three touchdown passes, nine INTs, a 50.6 passer rating and a 1-4 record against the Seahawks as a starter, yet Sherman stopped short of saying Seattle knows his tendencies better than any other QB.
"To a degree, but it’s like you know all the teams in your division’s tendencies better," Sherman said. "I’m sure they know Russell’s tendencies a little better than every other quarterback just from playing him so much. This will be the third time we’ve played them in 2014. You see a team so much you have to get something, unless you’re just not paying attention."
Taking away the big play has allowed the Seahawks to focus their attention on Gore. In Seattle’s three straight home wins over the 49ers, Gore has 26 carries for just 58 yards.
"We’ve never played a game against these guys in five years where we haven’t focused on him," Carroll said.
San Francisco hasn’t been quite so successful containing the Seahawks’ running game. Marshawn Lynch has averaged just north of 100 yards and scored six touchdowns – with two more through the air – in the last seven meetings.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who tore his ACL against Seattle in the NFC title game, was added to the active roster but won’t play this week and may not return this season.