NFL Preview - Seattle (11-1) at San Francisco (8-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Seattle Seahawks are closing in on their second NFC West title in four years and are doing so in more impressive fashion this time around.
Owners of the best record in football, the surging Seahawks look to lock up the division on Sunday against a San Francisco 49ers club that isn't ready to give up the crown just yet.
The 11-1 Seahawks locked up a playoff berth with a convincing 34-7 home win over the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, their seventh victory in a row. They are off to their best start in club history and have won 18 of their last 20 games overall.
Seattle is looking to win its eighth division title in club history and first since taking the NFC West in 2010 despite a 7-9 record. However, the Seahawks shocked most by beating New Orleans 41-36 in the wild card round before losing in Chicago.
The Seahawks have rolled by most of their competition this season, ranking second in both points scored and allowed this season. They have not lost since Oct. 6 at Indianapolis and their 5-1 record on the road is tied for the most road wins in team history with the 1984 and 2005 clubs.
A victory over San Francisco, the defending NFC champions and winners of the past two NFC West titles, would also give Seattle a first-round bye. The Seahawks should have plenty of momentum after Russell Wilson threw three touchdown passes and the defense held Saints quarterback Drew Brees to just 147 yards on Monday night.
"I said yesterday after we practiced that I thought it was the best week of practice we had this year," said Wilson. "That preparation was big and I really think it showed up tonight."
Wilson finished the game with 310 yards through the air with touchdown passes to Zach Miller, Doug Baldwin and Derrick Coleman.
Seattle is three games ahead of San Francisco for first place in the division and two games ahead of New Orleans and Carolina for the best record in the conference.
"Great night for us, big win on Monday night for fans and all of our followers," said Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. "The noise was a factor and we got to play the way we wanted to play."
After having three of their previous four games at home, the Seahawks are visiting the 49ers and New York Giants over the next two weekends.
San Francisco kept the pressure on Seattle with a 23-13 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. Colin Kaepernick amassed 275 yards and a touchdown without a turnover for the 49ers, who have won two straight and seven of their last nine.
Anquan Boldin made nine catches for 98 yards in a win that put the 49ers a game up on Philadelphia and Arizona for the conference's second wild card.
"I don't think we've played our best football yet," Boldin said. "I still think we have some things that we have to clean up. I do think we're getting better each week."
Niners wide receiver Michael Crabtree, returning from a torn Achilles that sidelined him for the season's first 11 games, had two catches totaling 68 yards in limited duty.
"It means a lot just to be out there and help contribute to the win," Crabtree said.
San Francisco is one of five teams this season to have not allow a 100-yard rusher, though Seattle back Marshawn Lynch came two yards shy in a 29-3 win at home on Sept. 15. Lynch scored three touchdowns and Kaepernick was picked off three times.
The Seahawks have won two straight over the 49ers, but both of those came at home and they have lost four in a row in San Francisco.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Niners and Seahawks have quarterbacks with similar styles as both Wilson and Kaepernick can move the ball down the field with their arms and extend plays with their legs.
Wilson is 14-0 at home in his career and his 22 wins through his first two NFL seasons are tied for the most in the Super Bowl era. He has thrown for 1,672 yards and completed 64.9 percent of his passes, connecting with his receivers for 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
Wilson is also second on the club with 456 rushing yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry while scoring once.
"I think that Russell Wilson is a good quarterback," said Niners linebacker Patrick Willis. "He's definitely establishing himself as one of the better quarterbacks in this league and it's great competition to play against him two times a year. Certainly this Sunday, we've got to make sure that we try to keep him contained and just get after him."
San Francisco was able to sack Wilson four times in the first meeting this season while holding him to 142 yards on 8-of-19 passing with a touchdown and interception. Wilson also ran for 33 yards in the win.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who has five sacks in his past four games, sacked Wilson once and fellow linebacker Aldon Smith got to the Seattle quarterback twice.
Brooks leads the Niners with 8 1/2 sacks, while Smith has 6 1/2 sacks on the season.
San Francisco seems to go as Kaepernick goes. He has a 123.1 passer rating over the two-game win streak and including playoffs, the Niners are 10-0 when Kaepernick starts and has a passer rating of 100-plus.
"I think they're both very talented quarterbacks," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said of Kaepernick and Wilson. "Two great young quarterbacks. And they both throw really well from the pocket, too. They stand in there and deliver. Their timing and accuracy, they're very good at that."
Once could argue that Wilson has been doing more with less, though the Seahawks rank third in football in rushing thanks to Lynch (970 yards, 9 TD). Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are Seattle's leading receivers and both have caught four TD passes.
Seattle acquired wide receiver Percy Harvin to give Wilson another threat, but he has appeared in just one game this season. He did not make his season debut until Week 11 due to offseason hip surgery and then was unable to play versus the Saints because of his hip.
Carroll is hopeful to have Harvin for this game as well as cornerback Brandon Browner, who is day-to-day after being sidelined since suffering a groin injury on Nov. 10.
Browner's return would boost a defense that ranks first in total yards and passing yards allowed. That despite Walter Thurmond currently serving a four- game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Seattle's secondary will have to focus on shutting down Boldin, Crabtree and Vernon Davis, who last weekend became the third-fastest tight end to reach 50 career TDs, doing so in 115 games.
Having a healthy Crabtree back will open up the field for the rest of the receivers and perhaps help Kaepernick improve on his 57.8 completion percentage and 88.9 passer rating.
"It's always good to have these two (Boldin and Crabtree) at your disposal, on the field, to make plays," said Kaepernick.
Boldin agrees as he leads the Niners with 61 catches and 822 yards. He also has caught five of Kaepernick's 15 touchdown passes this season, with the other 10 going to Davis.
"You know, it's about time he gets double-teamed now," noted Boldin of Crabtree. "It feels good. Like you said, when you have a guy like that on the other side it definitely relieves pressure off of you. It frees you up to just go out and play ball. It's good to have him back."
Boldin is 13 yards shy of becoming the 30th player in NFL history to reach 11,000 career receiving yards.
San Francisco, which ranks seventh with 130.8 rushing yards per game, is hobbled along its offensive line. Guard Mike Iupati has missed the past two games with a knee injury, while stud tackle Joe Staley left after one series versus the Rams with a right knee ailment.
This fierce rivalry has gone the Seahawks way the past two meetings, with Seattle outscoring San Francisco 71-16.
That leaves the 'Hawks something to prove as they try and show they can beat the Niners on enemy field. But the ultimate success has come by taking things one game at a time.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for us and every week brings really, the kind of mentality that we've been practicing for championship games and here we are," said Carroll. "So it kicks us right in the same mode that we've been in, which is what's comfortable for us."
Another NFC West title is probably out of reach for the Niners, but they can still make a statement this Sunday and grab more control over a potential wild card spot.
"We've talked about it the last couple of weeks that every game we play from here on it out is important," noted Willis. "It's important to where we go to get into the playoffs and that's what we're trying to do is just be able to get into those playoffs and once we get in, then I feel like anything can happen."
Yes, anything can happen but it is tough to go against the Seahawks right now, even on the road.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 17, 49ers 13
12/05 15:34:33 ET