The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers always give us chippy, incredible games, and yesterday’s display did not deviate from our lofty expectations. While the AFC Championship Game was a dud with the Denver Broncos dominating the New England Patriots, the Seahawks-49ers game was an evenly matched battle that came right down the wire and featured pivotal calls, big plays, and game-swinging turnovers. Below are ten in-depth observations from the game, including a defense of Colin Kaepernick.
1. The simplest thing to do is to blame this loss on Colin Kaepernick, because it’s always easy to pin the blame on one player, especially the quarterback who is the most visible player on the team. Yes, he had two interceptions including the one that eventually lost the game, but Kaepernick was also the only player on the 49ers offense who accomplished anything in the first place. Facing the Legion of Boom and the raucous crowd at CenturyLink, Kaepernick definitely had his work cut out for him, and it was extremely difficult to find open receivers. At times Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin were able to get open, but they were the only pass-catchers ever legitimately available for Kaep to throw it to. Aside from the combined nine catches provided by those two wideouts, there was nothing else out there. Vernon Davis? He got shut the bleep down by Kam Chancellor, who excels at covering TEs one-on-one due to his mix of size and speed.
The two interceptions and the lost fumble did the 49ers in and ultimately put a damper on Kaepernick’s performance, but it’s so easy to let turnovers stand out. Yes, the turnovers were the difference in the game and the difference between the 49ers winning and losing, but those plays shouldn’t undo the whopping 283 yards of total offense that Kaepernick put up. He was easily the most productive player on the 49ers offense yesterday, and his incredible rushing ability and arm strength were the difference for this team. He needs to do a much better job of making decisions, as his pick to Chancellor was an inexcusably bad decision and thrown, and I was very upset with his throw in the end zone into Richard Sherman‘s wheelhouse. But always remember that a few bad decisions don’t totally destroy a player’s game, especially when their 130 yards on the ground kept the team in it.
2. It’s telling that Frank Gore was only able to run for 14 yards on 11 carries, and that lack of production from their star running back was a big reason why the 49ers weren’t able to prevail. Marshawn Lynch had a wonderful performance (I’ll get to him later), but Gore was completely bottled up by a Seahawks front seven that showed excellent gap discipline. Every time I look at the Seahawks roster, I am incredibly impressed with the kind of depth and talent they have on all parts of their defense; we’re talking about greatness on an all-time scale. Gore’s poor day on the ground gives Kaepernick’s 130 yards even more context, and Kaep’s ability to juke out elite defensive players is something that can’t be understated.
3. Once again, Marshawn Lynch was the difference for the Seattle Seahawks, and he’s been their MVP for two straight playoff games. I thought the 49ers elite front seven would have some success against Lynch yesterday, and they generally held up in the first half against “Beast Mode”. However, you could see the seeds of a break down starting to happen in the first half, as Pete Carroll showed his genius by wisely sticking with the running game. The Seahawks always want to run it down your throat on offense with their smashmouth style, and it almost always works due to Lynch’s immense talent. He finished with 109 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, with the 40-yard TD run tying things up at ten for the first score of the second half. Lynch showed great vision cutting to a hole in the left side of the line, and then he made another cut to completely catch talented rookie safety Eric Reid out of position. From then on Lynch’s explosion was showcased, and he’s a lot faster in the open field than some people think.
Performances like that 100-yard outburst against the star-studded 49ers defense show us just how dominant Lynch is, and he matched Kaepernick’s impact on the ground in a critical performance. One thing that stood out to me about Lynch’s day was the fact that he managed to break tackles from big guys like Aldon Smith. We talk a lot about how defensive linemen have great motors, but Lynch has a great “motor” as a running back; his legs are always churning and he’s always breaking tackles. Yeah, big game from him.
4. The 49ers did a really nice job of putting pressure on Russell Wilson, and it was frustrating to watch Wilson run back like ten yards in Weeden-esque fashion when trying to escape the pressure. It worked out for him plenty of times due to his athleticism and improv skill, but that also depends on how you define “worked out for him”. He needs to do a better job of stepping up into the pocket to get his passes off, and there were times when Wilson simply held on for a second too long instead of throwing it. I think that Wilson’s hesitancy had to do with his worry over throwing an interception, and his cautiousness did pay off in the end when looking at the turnover margin. But at the same time, I still think the one glaring weakness to Wilson’s game is his inability to sense pressure and step up in the pocket to still make throws. He usually does the latter, but sometimes he displays bad habits like he did in yesterday’s game.
Overall, the 49ers managed to sack Wilson four times and hit him a whopping ten times, as Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta, and Ahmad Brooks (three) all had multiple quarterback hits. Brooks finishes the postseason with three very strong games as a pass rusher, and he was a star performer yesterday.
5. It’s interesting to look at the disparity between QB Rating and ESPN TQBR when looking at the stat sheets of Wilson and Kaepernick. While Kaepernick had a QB Rating of 56.4 to Wilson’s 104.6, Kaepernick also had an ESPN TQBR of 65.1 compared to Wilson’s 38.9. Wilson averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, but he relied too much on the big play and lucked out at times (there was a 22-yard pass to Doug Baldwin that was luckily not picked off). I think had a few plays gone here or there for either quarterback, we could have easily seen Wilson as the “goat” for the guys I like to call the “narrative hounds”, but instead Kaepernick is the one who is receiving criticism. I liked how Wilson was able to avoid turning the ball over, but I think the numbers inflated his ability to move the ball effectively. Again, the real difference between these two teams was the ground game, and Marshawn Lynch had a ridiculous amount of his yardage come after first contact; Lynch deserves the game ball.