It all comes down to this.
The 49ers (12-3) travel to Seattle to face the arch-rival Seahawks (11-4). What’s at stake? The division and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Both the 49ers and Seahawks have had this game circled on their calendars for months, and for good reason.
Separated by one game, the 49ers must win Sunday night to claim the top spot in the NFC, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
All season the 49ers have battled key injuries on both sides of the ball. But after Seattle’s Week 16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals (5-9-1), it is Seattle with numerous injuries to key players, most notably at running back.
The return of Marshawn
After losing Pro Bowl-caliber running back Chris Carson, as well as Rashaad Penny and third-string running back C.J. Prosise, the Seahawks finished Week 16 decimated at the running back position. Needing to bring in multiple running backs after the slew of injuries, the Seahawks made a splash this week by bringing back Seattle legend Marshawn Lynch himself.
Kyle Shanahan was asked Tuesday about the Lynch signing, and what kind of challenge is presents for the 49ers:
“It is a huge challenge. It depends on how much those guys have been working out and stuff like that. I do think it’s a little different with the running back position. There’s a lot that goes into people understanding the scheme and the game plan and everything, but you can use a running back a lot easier just depending on if you’re handing him the ball and he needs to run. So, you can get guys up to speed a lot faster in that way. The rest will be how much they’ve worked out, which keeps them in shape. No one’s in football shape. I don’t think those guys are planning on any single guy just carrying the load the whole game. The football shape and how they react will probably be more of an issue for them the next week than the first week.”
The Seahawks picked up Lynch after the 33-year-old running back retired after the 2015 season, came out of retirement to join the Oakland Raiders for two seasons, before retiring again, only to come out of retirement once more to join the Seahawks ahead of their epic Week 17 clash with the 49ers.
Lynch has not played in an NFL game in over a year, so what exactly will he bring to the table?
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has said that Lynch will play Sunday, and will be a part of the offensive plan against the 49ers. In addition to Lynch, the Seahawks brought back another former Seattle running back, Robert Turbin. Lynch is expected to see time in the backfield, and may even start, but it sounds like the Seahawks are planning on giving the bulk of the carries to rookie Travis Homer, who (of the three) is the only one who has been with the team all season long.
49ers offense versus Seahawks defense
The Seahawks are battling numerous injuries to key players on defense. Both safety Quandre Diggs (ankle) and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (core) are battling injuries, ahead of Sunday’s matchup. Clowney has said that he will indeed play Sunday, while Diggs is looking less likely.
Clowney had a huge game (1 sack, 5 QB hits, 1 fumble recovery, 1 TD) against Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers in Week 10. That week he was matched up with 49ers veteran left tackle Joe Staley, who underperformed likely due to injury. This week, Staley is the one that is healthy, while Clowney’s performance could be hampered due to an injury.
Diggs was acquired by the Seahawks in a trade with the Detroit Lions before the trade deadline and has been stellar ever since joining Seattle’s defensive backfield.
Without Diggs, the Seahawks defense has struggled the past game and a half (he suffered his injury halfway through Week 15). If Diggs is indeed out Sunday, it would certainly bode well for the 49ers offense.
When the Seahawks and 49ers last met in Week 10, the 49ers were without both George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders on offense. With one, or even both, of those pass-catchers, the result may have been quite different than the 27-24 overtime loss. That week, the 49ers offense struggled to move the ball against a middle-of-the-pack Seahawks defense. This time around, the 49ers will have both Kittle and Sanders on hand, which should give the 49ers the advantage.
Seahawks offense versus 49ers defense
Aside from the injuries to Seattle running backs, their offense will be without a couple of other important pieces. Starting tackle Duane Brown had minor surgery on his knee this week, and will not play Sunday. Brown has been the anchor of a subpar Seahawks offensive line, and without Brown Sunday, the 49ers pass rush will look to bounce back from their zero-sack performance against the Rams in Week 16.
Speaking of zero sacks in Week 16, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had this to say about his defensive line’s struggles to record sacks, and what teams like the Rams did to counteract the overwhelming 49ers pass-rush:
“So, for me, I’ve told you all before, I always look at how teams call games against us. If a coordinator is deliberately changing the way he’s called games versus other opponents versus us, then I feel like, heck yeah, it’s affecting them because they’ve had to actually change their game plan and change the way they approach us. Last week would be a perfect example. To call 21 boots is unheard of, not unheard of, obviously, but I think we’ve had 25 or so boots all year and to get it 21 times in a game tells me our rush is still very affective, teams are still worried about it. And for us, we’ve just got to continue to be cognizant of it and be able to go with the flow of the game and the way the coordinator’s calling plays and make adjustments as quickly as we can.”
Brown is not the only Seattle offensive lineman working through an injury. Aside from Brown, guard Mike Iupati, center Joey Hunt, tackle Germaine Ifedi, guard Ethan Pocic, tackle Jamarco Jones, and tackle George Fant are all battling injuries this week. A total of seven Seattle offensive lineman showed up on the Seahawks injury report this week.
Of those offensive linemen that are battling injuries, Brown is the only one listed as out for Sunday, while Pocic is listed as questionable.
Seattle lost a key playmaker in Carson, who was at the center of what the Seahawks like to do on offense: run the ball. Without Carson, the Seahawks may look to air it out more. Last week Seahawks wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended indefinitely for multiple failed drug tests.
Gordon made a couple of huge plays in the Seahawks win over the 49ers in Week 10, but will not be available Sunday night or any remaining game the Seahawks may play this season. Without Carson and Gordon, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will be giving wide receivers Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf and tight end Jacob Hollister plenty of looks on Sunday. The 49ers, who have struggled against opposing tight ends lately, will need to focus on Hollister over the middle.
Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs is a longshot to play Sunday, while the 49ers will likely be without a starting safety of their own. Jaquiski Tartt who has been battling a rib injury the past two weeks is doubtful for Sunday’s game in Seattle. Tartt is a very very important member of the 49ers defense. I like to refer to him as the “George Kittle of the defense,” because of how the defense struggles when he does not play. Just like Kittle on offense, the defense can operate at full-force with Tartt on defense. Since Tartt has been out, the defense has struggled with backup safety Marcell Harris.
Both teams have experienced their fair share of injuries this season. The 49ers are trending towards getting healthy, while the Seahawks are trending downwards, losing players as the regular season wraps up. Here are the status reports for both teams ahead of the Week 17 matchup.
- Prior to last Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, 49ers backup quarterback C.J. Beathard‘s brother Clayton Beathard was fatally stabbed outside of a bar in Nashville. There has been an update with the situation, as a suspect has been arrested.
- The holidays were in full swing at the 49ers facility this week:
- A huge matchup in Seattle against the rival Seahawks calls for a look to match the intensity. This Sunday night, the 49ers will wear their 1994 throwback jerseys. No matter what the outcome is, the 49ers will certainly look their Sunday-best on prime time.