In Seattle on Sunday, the emphasis won’t be on the quarterbacks. It will be on the defenses and the running backs.
The 49ers’ defense played probably its best game of the season against the Carolina Panthers, especially in the second half when the Niners were able to play mind games with Caroliina quarterback Cam Newton. After the game, Newton said the 49ers seemed to know exactly when he was going to an audible. Certainly, they stopped everything he tried, sacking him five times.
This meant that Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn’t have to win the game himself, so he stayed in control, not taking chances and spreading the ball around to what could be the best trio of receivers in the NFL — Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. It was Davis who got the Niners’ first touchdown, just before halftime, on a play that was first ruled out of bounds, setting off a Vesuvius-type eruption from coach Jim Harbaugh. When the play was reviewed, it was obvious Davis had both feet in bounds.
It was Boldin, though, who made the real circus catches, as he has done all year, taking in passes that were too low, behind him and above him. Harbaugh praised Crabtree earlier as being the best pass-catcher he’s seen, but that was because he knows how tender Crabtree’s ego is. Boldin is much tougher mentally, and he’s also a better receiver.
As he has done so often, Frank Gore became a big factor in the second half, getting 67 of his 84 yards after intermission. That included a 39-yard run on third-and-1 that set up the final 49ers score, a field goal by automatic Phil Dawson.
Similarly, Marshawn Lynch had an important run late in Saturday’s game, a 31-yard touchdown that basically put away the Seahawks’ win, though the New Orleans Saints made it interesting with late-game plays.
Unlike Gore, Lynch was a factor throughout the game, running for 140 yards. It was a return to form for Lynch, who had tailed off late in the year because of fatigue. The Seahawks’ No. 1 seed made it possible for him to rest and once again become the runner who is nicknamed “Beast Mode.”
The Seattle offense has struggled of late, mostly because QB Russell Wilson has. Wilson’s struggles continued on Saturday in the rain and wind in Seattle, but he did hit a long pass late in the fourth quarter to set up Lynch’s run.
Wilson’s effectiveness on Sunday will depend in part on whether receiver Percy Harvin can play — and for how long. Harvin left in the second quarter Saturday after suffering a concussion. The Seahawks announced Monday that no decision on his ability to play will be made before Wednesday or Thursday.
No matter, the game will probably still come down to which defense can dominate in a game that will almost certainly be played in cold and rain, though nothing as bad as Green Bay.
The Seattle defense has been regarded as the best in the league, but the 49ers D is its equal and played its best in Carolina. If they play that well again Sunday, the Niners may be headed back to the Super Bowl.