In a showdown for the NFC West championship Sunday night in Seattle, every point will count.
The visiting 49ers don’t expect to put up 41 points the way they did in a victory at New England this past Sunday night, and the Seahawks certainly know they won’t be putting up the 50 and 58 points they put up in their past two games.
This one could be a replay of the teams’ first meeting this season, a 13-6 49ers victory on a Thursday night in October that featured two solid ground games, rugged hitting and teams that want to prove a point to one another.
With a win, the 10-3-1 49ers can clinch the NFC West for a second straight season and edge closer to clinching a first-round playoff bye. If the 9-5 Seahawks win, they’ll keep their chances alive of winning the division on the final week of the season.
The teams are tied for first in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 15.6 points per game.
As Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told Yahoo Sports’ Doug Farrar this week, he sees his team and Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers team as almost mirror images of one another. Sunday night’s game, he expects, will be a very physical, defensive-oriented game.
“I think we’re similar,” Carroll told Farrar. “I can’t help but see that because they believe in playing big-time defense as well as us, they believe in the running game, which we do, and they have a very strong emphasis on special teams, which we do.”
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers a 1-point favorite for the Sunday night matchup, which will be San Francisco’s fifth game on national prime-time television this season. So far, the 49ers are 5-0 in those games. As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group noted, only two NFL teams ever have gone 6-0 in prime time over a season, the 2007 New England Patriots and 2007 Dallas Cowboys.
To beat the Seahawks, however, the 49ers are going to have to beat a tough team twice in one season – likely in a low-scoring game in which both big plays and big mistakes will have more impact – and on the Seahawks’ field, which is the loudest in the NFL, thanks to their celebrated “12th Man” fans.
In their predictions for Sunday night’s clash, Mike Sando of ESPN.com and Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. both project the Seattle venue will make a difference in the game, both taking the Seahawks despite believing San Francisco is the better team.
Wrote Sando: “I also think the 49ers have the better team, but the venue and circumstances could give Seattle an edge.”
Two changes for the 49ers from their first meeting in October could prove significant.
First, defensive end Justin Smith, a perennial Pro Bowler on the right side, remains in limbo for Sunday night’s matchup. He was injured against New England and has not yet practiced this week, though Harbaugh said at one point he believes Smith will play. If he can’t – ending his string of 185 consecutive regular-season starts -- Ricky Jean Francois will start in his place.
And secondly, this will be the Seahawks’ first look at quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In the October victory by the 49ers, Alex Smith was the starter. Kaepernick has given the 49ers a whole new look on offense since winning the job.
“The thing that really jumps out is that Colin has such a strong arm,” Carroll told Yahoo. “He really can fire the ball down the field on down-the-field stuff along with their play-action stuff, and then when he gets out and runs he can really go. So it’s a little more of a run threat than with Alex.”