Up next: San Francisco 49ers
When: Sunday, 5:20 p.m., CenturyLink Field
Record: 10-3-1 after Sunday night’s 41-34 victory over the Patriots in New England
Where they rank: No. 11 on offense (2nd rushing, 26th passing); No. 2 on defense (3rd rushing, 5th passing)
TV: NBC (KING/5 in the greater Seattle area), with Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya
Significance: The 49ers, who clinched a playoff spot with Sunday’s win, can win the NFC West title by beating the Seahawks
Series: 49ers lead 14-13 after their 13-6 victory in Week 7 over the Seahawks in San Francisco, which pushed their winning streak in the series to four in a row
Star power: Aldon Smith. On a team loaded with candidates, none have shined brighter this season than the second-year linebacker/rush-end. Smith has 19.5 sacks to share the NFL lead with J.J. Watt of the Texans. And while many consider Watt the shoo-in for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Smith’s late-season surge has others say, “What?” As Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk put it during NFL GameDay on the NFL Network, “Aldon Smith is the defensive MVP. He is not just a pass rusher, he sacrifices sacks by dropping into coverage.” Smith also has 58 tackles, which ranks sixth on the 49ers’ No. 2-ranked defense, and leads the unit with three forced fumbles. While Smith went without a sack against the Patriots, despite Tom Brady putting the ball up 65 times, he had 14 in his previous six games.
Unsung hero: Jim Harbaugh. The coach? The coach. Harbaugh and warm and fuzzy never have been used in the same sentence, which can make him difficult to embrace. But just look at what he’s done in two seasons with the 49ers. And it goes beyond their 23-6-1 regular-season record, which includes three victories over the Seahawks in as many games. Last season, he stepped up to the NFL from Stanford and had no offseason to install anything because of the 136-day lockout. He hitched his hopes to Alex Smith, the much-maligned QB who had seemingly played his way out of town despite being the first pick overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. So what happens? The 49ers go 13-3 and make it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. This season, Smith gets injured so Harbaugh, a former NFL QB, goes with Colin Kaepernick, who threw all of five passes during his rookie season. When Smith is healthy, Harbaugh stays with Kaepernick, who has beaten Jay Cutler and the Bears, Drew Brees and the Saints and Brady and the Patriots – and fashioned a 101.4 passer rating while doing it – to lift the 49ers to 10 victories. And then there’s the way the 49ers play defense. Impressive stuff.
On the spot: Kaepernick and center Jonathan Goodwin. They fumbled four exchanges against the Patriots. How can a guy who throws four touchdown passes against the Patriots have so much trouble with something that’s so rudimentary? Well, for Kaepernick taking the snap directly from center is, well, left of center. At Nevada-Reno he worked almost exclusively from the shotgun. As former Seahawks QB turned ESPN QB analyst Trent Dilfer explained on Sunday night, Kaepernick has a habit of allowing his hands to get too far apart when taking the direct snap, which allows the ball to get away from him. It didn’t cost the 49ers against the Patriots, but it could on Sunday night against the Seahawks and as his team moves into the postseason.
Burning question: Will Justin Smith be able to play? The most versatile, and valuable, member of the 49ers’ defense left the Patriots game with an elbow injury and did not return. The status of the Pro Bowl defensive lineman against the Seahawks remains uncertain. Monday, Harbaugh conceded that the loss of Smith was linked directly to Patriots rallying from a 31-3 deficit to tie the score in the second half.
Numbers to know: 5-0, the 49ers’ record in primetime games this season. … 41 and 45, the 49ers’ point totals against the Patriots on Sunday night and the Bills in Week 5. It’s the first time since 2003 that they’ve scored 40-plus in multiple games. … 94, the number of plays the 49ers defense was on the field against the Patriots. … .714, David Akers’ percentage (25 of 35), compared to .846 last season (44 of 52) when he went to the Pro Bowl. … 61, rushing first downs allowed by the 49ers, which ties for fewest in the league. … 84, points allowed by the 49ers in the fourth quarter, far more than they’ve allowed in the first (37), second (46) and third (48) quarters. … 379 and 5, Kaepernick’s rushing yards and rushing TDs, which are second on the team to Frank Gore (1,118 and 7). … 238, the combined tackles by linebackers NaVorro Bowman (128) and Patrick Willis (110).
Familiar faces: Free safety Dashon Goldson played at the University of Washington. Practice-squad wide receiver Ricardo Lockette was with the Seahawks last season and in training camp this summer, while practice-squad linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis played at Washington State. Offensive line coach Mike Solari held the same position with the Seahawks in 2008-09. Special teams assistant Tracy Smith was a coaching assistant with the Seahawks last season and is the son of Seahawks QB coach Carl Smith. Senior offensive assistant Paul Wulff was the head coach at Washington State (2009-11), played at WSU and also coached at Eastern Washington (1993-2007). Special assistant to the head coach Bill Nayes was football operations coordinator with the Seahawks from 1999-2006.
The last word: “Nothing seems to rattle him. He’s been able to just play his game. Even against Miami, with the game on the line, important drive, and he keeps it and run down the sideline for a (50-yard) touchdown. We knew we weren’t going to really rattle him.” – Patriots safety Devin McCourty on Kaepernick
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