San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks: NFC Championship Preview

Coming into the 2013-2014 NFL season, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks were the two favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and with this weekend's upcoming showdown, it looks like those expectations were justified. The bitter NFC West rivals will meet for the third time this season in Sunday's NFC Championship game, and the matchup has football fans all over the country salivating - it's safe to say that there's no bigger rivalry in the NFL right now.

The rivalry between the 49ers and the Seahawks goes much deeper than mutual dislike between the players. Both head coaches have been rivals for some time now, going back to their days as college coaches when Pete Carroll was at USC and Jim Harbaugh was at Stanford. Carroll and Harbaugh always seem to be playing mind games with each other prior to games - both are passionate coaches who show their emotions on the field, and both can rub opposing coaches the wrong way.

Coming into this game, the 49ers seem to have more momentum than the Seahawks after winning two straight playoff games on the road against two high-quality opponents. The Seahawks also played a very tough home game against the New Orleans Saints, but it was by no means a dominant performance. The Seahawks will have to play better if they want to advance to the Super Bowl.

Keys to the Game

Homefield Advantage?

Seattle has shown that they're no longer invincible at home. The Arizona Cardinals won in Seattle in week 16, giving up less than 200 yards of total offense, and the Cardinals were able to win even though they turned the ball over four times. The Cardinals set the blueprint on how to win in Seattle, a place where the 49ers have struggled mightily over the past few seasons. San Francisco will have to dominate time of possession, put serious pressure on Russell Wilson, and hold the Seahawks on third downs. All of these were keys to the Cardinals winning in Seattle and will be key for the 49ers if they want to win on Sunday.

Running the Ball

The 49ers will have to show more commitment to Frank Gore and the running game if they want to beat the Seahawks. The first half of the Carolina game featured a lot of passing attempts from Colin Kaepernick and very few rushing attempts from Frank Gore. They finally got the running game involved in the second half, which may have been the game plan going into the game. The plan kept Cam Newton and the Carolina offense off the field for much of the second half, and Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense will look to do the same against the Seahawks.

Starting Strong

One of the biggest problems the 49ers have had when playing in Seattle is getting off to a good start. In their past two games in Seattle, they've gotten down by double digits early, which makes it very difficult for them to play the style of game they want to play. Making big plays early to keep the crowd out of the game would keep the momentum in favor of the 49ers, and if the 49ers can keep the crowd out of the game, it'll help them communicate better on offense because they might actually be able to hear what Colin Kaepernick is saying at the line of scrimmage.

Special Teams

Special teams could play a huge role in determining the outcome of the game. The Seahawks have one of the best special teams units in the NFL, especially when it comes to punt coverage and punt returns. They rarely surrender any punt return yardage to opposing teams, and Golden Tate has been a solid punt returner for them all season. LaMichael James could change all of that for the 49ers by making some big plays in the return game, which would be a great way to kick-start the offense and take the Seattle crowd out of the game.

Protect the Quarterback

The 49ers offensive line did an outstanding job of protecting Colin Kaepernick against the Panthers in the Divisional Round. They also did a great job against Green Bay on Wild Card Weekend. This trend will need to continue against the Seahawks - Colin Kaepernick ranks among the top passers in the game when given time to throw, but he ranks among the worst when he's put under heavy pressure.

There shouldn't be too many surprises coming from the Seattle defense, considering the 49ers have already played the Seahawks twice this year. Protecting Kaepernick will be much easier said then done, but will be key to the 49ers ability to throw the ball and score points.

The Front Seven

Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks proved that they're the best linebacking corps in the NFL, recording a combined 31 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and an interception against the Carolina Panthers. They'll need to step up and continue to make big plays to slow down Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and the Seahawks offense. If Lynch and Wilson dominate on the ground, the 49ers will have a very difficult time winning.

Having experienced CenturyLink Field in the past, the 49ers should be prepared to go into Seattle for this game. If they aren't prepared to deal with Guiness World Record-level noise from the Seahawks fans, then they can't win this game. No team can go to Seattle and win if they can't deal with that crowd noise. The 49ers will need to make a huge play early to silence the crowd and create momentum they can carry through the rest of game. San Francisco can't afford to turn the ball over early and go down by double digits like they have in the past - I think the 49ers will do just enough to win this game by a final score of 24-20.

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