After spending the last five years in the shadow of the Seahawks — their NFC West foes — the 49ers have risen to the top of the NFC this year. But one final test looms as San Francisco has one regular season game left.
For the first time since 2014, the San Francisco 49ers will head to Centurylink Field in Seattle with postseason implications at stake. Taking on the Seahawks in prime-time on Sunday night, the 49ers will have a shot at the NFC West title — a feat that San Francisco hasn’t achieved in nearly a decade.
“You know how excited everyone is, you know how excited they’re going to be,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “This is definitely a week you don’t have to try at all to get your team up for the game.”
As the 49ers prepare to head up the Pacific Northwest for the first time this season, here are three things to watch for when Sunday Night Football kicks off:
Winning is a must for the 49ers
For the 49ers, winning and losing their Week 17 match up against the Seahawks represents two entirely different paths they’ll have to take in order to qualify for the Super Bowl.
Here are the scenarios: If San Francisco finds a way to win its first game in Seattle since 2011, they’ll secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which comes with a first-round bye and home field advantage in the divisional and conference championship games.
If San Francisco loses, however, it will fall all the way to the No. 5 seed as the top wild card team. That will mean winning three consecutive road games in order to punch its ticket to Miami, where the 2020 Super Bowl will be played.
“If I had to pick, I would much rather only have to play two games than three games,” Shanahan said. “That’s how we look at it.”
Only six wild card teams have won a Super Bowl in the modern era. The last was the Green Bay Packers in 2010, who edged the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-25.
San Francisco has been outscored by 130 points in the seven games since its last win in Seattle on Sept. 11, 2011 and they were narrowly beaten at home by the Seahawks in overtime in Week 10 this year.
Considering what is at stake and what a win in Seattle would potentially do for the trajectory of this ascending football club, the level of intensity should be at an all-time high for the 49ers.
Beast Mode back in action
Rolling up in an SUV filled to its windows with Skittles, former Oakland Raider Marshawn Lynch arrived in Seattle this week after being signed by the Seahawks.
Lynch, who hasn’t played a snap of football in nearly a calendar year, will suit up to assist a Seattle running back corps ravaged by injury.
“I saw the backs they lost, so you knew they were going to sign someone,” Shanahan said. “They signed a good one. I know Marshawn will come in and he’ll be ready regardless of how much time he’s had off.”
According to the Seahawks, running backs Chris Carson (hip) and C.J. Prosise (arm) will miss the remainder of the season due to their injuries. To mitigate this now gaping hole on its roster, Seattle signed Lynch on a prorated deal worth $60,588 for just one game of action.
Lynch spent six seasons with Seattle from 2010-2015 in which he rushed for 6,347 total yards, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
His last two seasons were spent in Oakland, however, where he experienced a steady drop-off in production, averaging just 633.5 yards per season over that span.
Considering that Lynch is essentially coming off of the street and onto an NFL field again, it’s hard to envision what his impact will be. The good news for the Seahawks, though is that he’s very familiar with head coach Pete Carroll’s system, making the transition as easy as possible.
Tartt limited in practice, but may play
This week, 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt has been wearing a blue non-contact jersey, representing his limited activity while he tries to work back from a rib injury.
Tartt suffered broken ribs against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13 and has been sidelined since. In his place, backup safety Marcell Hariss has stepped in but at the cost of San Francisco’s pass defense.
In the three games since Tartt’s injury, the 49ers have given up 873 yards through the air, including a 349-yard game against the New Orleans Saints. With Tartt in the lineup, San Francisco hadn’t given up more than 291 passing yards in a single game.
“It would come from the performance staff on whether or not he’s healthy to get back with us,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “I know he’s been practicing and trying to get back into it. As soon as he’s ready to roll and when we get clearance he’ll be in there.”
Tartt is expected to be listed as questionable against Seattle and will be a game-time decision come Sunday.
As Seattle’s running back depth has been severely compromised, it’s expected that the Seahawks will be forced to throw more than usual, putting more pressure on the 49ers pass coverage.
To put things simply, San Francisco will need Tartt’s help to defend the attack through the air.