Everyone is excited about Sunday night’s game, but the only people who should be nervous reside in Seattle. That’s not a statement on who’ll win, either. If I was a betting man (and I’m not, unless fantasy counts), I’d take the Seahawks. They’re talented, the quarterback is excellent and getting better, and they went 8-0 at home last season.
They also crushed the 49ers in Seattle last year — the one time all season where Jim Harbaugh’s team looked bad. Not just bad, but tired. After that game they knew they had to win a week later against Arizona, just to get the bye week and some much-needed recovery time.
It would be alarming if the 49ers lost by a similar score to the 42-13 shellacking they absorbed at Centurylink last December, since they’re coming off a home game where the roster escaped almost fully healthy and on Sunday they’ll have Justin Smith. But even if Seattle won in a rout, it wouldn’t inflict permanent damage on the 49ers — as long as they stay healthy.
The Seahawks don’t just want to beat the 49ers, they want to beat up the 49ers. Vernon Davis suffered a concussion in Seattle on a vicious hit from Kam Chancellor, who’d love to get a crack at Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams or Davis once again. It runs toward the painfully obvious to state that injuries occur during NFL games, but the intra-divisional battles in this division took a step forward in the “maiming” department last year. Alex Smith suffered his concussion against the Rams, and the Cardinals wouldn’t have minded doing the same to a 49ers skill position player last season either. The 49ers are the bully, but the rest of the teams in this division also have strong, nasty defenses.
But even if the 49ers do lose by three touchdowns or more it won’t be catastrophic, although if they got blown out with a healthy Justin Smith it would disappointing. They won the NFC Championship Game a month after losing by 29 in Seattle last year, and a month from Sunday the 49ers will face the Cardinals at Candlestick after a brutal five-game stretch to start the season. But if Seattle loses a game that seems almost like their Super Bowl in terms of everything from ticket prices to anticipation, they’d face a lot of questions … especially if they show weakness in two areas.
Offensive line: the Seahawks and the 49ers have built their teams in different ways. Everything flows from the offensive line for San Francisco, while Seattle has patched together a middling group of blockers. Left tackle Russell Okung is a strong player, but the guards (Paul McQuistan and James Carpenter) are below average. The Seahawks gained only 70 yards on the ground in Carolina, relying on a 300-yard passing day from Russell Wilson in a 12-7 Seattle victory. Marshawn Lynch rushed for over 100 yards against the 49ers in each of the last three times these teams have faced — if Lynch gets bottled up on Sunday and they allow more than the two sacks they surrendered against Carolina, they’re going to start wondering whether they have the line to take them deep into the playoffs.
Run defense: The 49ers rushed for 175 yards in their 13-6 home victory against the Seahawks last year, and only 82 in the blowout loss. Granted, San Francisco fell behind early and pretty much abandoned the run — that’s what happens when a 21-yard field goal attempt gets blocked and returned for a touchdown by Richard Sherman, which gave the Seahawks a 21-0 lead at the beginning of the second quarter. The Panthers rushed for 134 yards on 26 carries (5.2 ypc) in Week 1. The 49ers showed they can win through the air against Green Bay, but if Frank Gore out-rushes Lynch (as he did in San Francisco a year ago, 131 yards to 103), that will be another reason for Seattle fans to start getting concerned.
The 49ers have their own weaknesses: penalties, clock management and poor tackling all contributed to the 49ers almost losing a game against Green Bay where they held a 17-minute advantage in time of possession, and those issues could be exacerbated in such a loud facility. But one gets the sense that the 49ers have had their eyes on a different prize than the Seahawks since the last Super Bowl. The 49ers want to get back to that game, and the Seahawks seem to want to prove they’re better than the 49ers above all else. If the 49ers lose on Sunday but sustain only minor injuries at most, they brush themselves off and concentrate on Andrew Luck and the Colts. If the Seahawks lose, their best hope of getting to the Super Bowl (home field advantage throughout) takes a hit — and a team that’s supposed to be even better than last year will be forced to wonder if they actually took a step back in 2013.