As the 49ers don’t need to be reminded, the Seattle Seahawks have been their worst nightmare in recent years.
The rotten memories include a close call in the NFC Championship Game in Seattle, where the 49ers were eliminated 23-17 in January 2014 in what became the beginning of the end for coach Jim Harbaugh. It also was nearly that for linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who sustained a gruesome knee injury in the game.
More recently, there was the sight of Seahawks stars Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson feasting on turkey legs after a victory last Thanksgiving Day. The NBC postgame show took place on the 49ers’ logo at midfield, no less.
As if that’s not motivation enough, the 49ers will be fighting for their lives in the matchup of 2-4 teams at Levi’s Stadium this evening. The Seahawks have won five of the last six games between them.
“That’s one thing around here that we all know — this is a big game,” coach Jim Tomsula said. “We don’t make any bones about that. Any time you play Seattle, it’s a big deal. So I wouldn’t expect that we’ve got to get anybody pumped up for this game.”
“We need to get this to get a couple of wins [in a row],” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “We need this to gain momentum moving forward. We’re not in a position to lose any more games.”
After a tumultuous offseason, almost no one outside the 49ers’ organization considered the team to be postseason material in Tomsula’s debut as head coach. To have even the slightest playoff hopes, simple math suggests that they cannot afford to lose this one.
A victory would give the 49ers a 3-4 record and move them into the wild-card race with several other NFC teams. At 2-5, they would be longshots at best. Even worse, there wouldn’t be anything tangible to play for under a rookie head coach, which could lead to any number of issues later in the season.
Running back Reggie Bush (calf) is expected be available after a one-game absence. The status of running back Carlos Hyde (foot) and receiver Anquan Boldin (hamstring) was uncertain after both had limited practice time earlier in the week. Without Hyde, Jarryd Hayne may get more chances at running back, though he did himself no favors with another fumble on a punt return last weekend.
The 49ers won’t face the Seahawks at a more opportune time. The reigning NFC champions blew fourth-quarter leads in their last two games and face a multitude of problems on and off the field.
“Yeah, it’s a huge opportunity for us … to get back to 1-1 in our division, to get to 3-4 overall and start stacking wins together,” Kaepernick said.
The contest pits two quarterbacks who have been running for their lives behind makeshift offensive lines. Wilson has been sacked an NFL-high 26 times. He’ll face a defense that has recorded only nine takedowns, which rank 24th.
Wilson presents unique challenges with his athletic ability, not unlike what the 49ers’ defense faces against Kaepernick in practice each week.
“Their quarterback makes everybody not just an option on the [pass] route, but there’s the secondary option and the way that he can extend plays,” defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said. “He has tremendous arm strength and then he’s got the ability to pull it down and [run] 40 or 50 [yards] on you before you can blink.
“So, that’s a challenge in terms of trying to not just keep him in the pocket, but with the quarterback-driven runs … they can control some of how much he carries it. And that’s a whole other element in the running game that you typically don’t face with this type of explosiveness.”
The once-dominant Seahawks defense hasn’t been much of that this season. The return of Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor after a contract holdout was supposed to fix the problems, but the unit allowed 27 points in each of the last two games.
The Seahawks have been particularly lax against tight ends late in games. In the fourth quarter, opponents have completed 84 percent of pass attempts and yet to throw an interception.
“There are holes in every defense. There are opportunities against every defense,” Kaepernick said. “We have to be able to find those and be able to exploit those.”
Kaepernick has some payback of his own. His career 1-5 record and 54.1 rating against the Seahawks are by far his worst marks against a division opponent in the regular season.
Said Kaepernick, “It’s not a personal goal to do better against this defense, but the personal goal is to win. That’s all this team’s worried about. That’s all that I’m worried about.”