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Top 10 Spotlight: NFC Championship Game

Posted Jan 18, 2014

The focused and loose 49ers will compete in the franchise's 15th NFC Championship game on Sunday. Read up on the top 10 storylines for the big game.

The San Francisco 49ers will make the franchise’s 15th appearance in the NFC title game this Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. It’s the third meeting between the bitter NFC West rivals this season. Both teams haven beaten each other at home this season and have established themselves as two of the most physical teams in the National Football League. The stage is now set for a classic postseason matchup.

Let’s look at the top 10 storylines for Sunday.

10. Fullback by Committee?
Will Tukuafu suffered a knee injury early in last week’s win over the Carolina Panthers. Shortly after making his first career reception as a fullback, the converted defensive lineman was tackled awkwardly by Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Tukuafu did not return to action for the rest of the game. This week, however, the large lead-blocker has progressed each day and was limited in practice. He’s officially listed as questionable for Sunday. If Tukuafu is unable to play, look for the 49ers to employ a fullback-by-committee approach. Anthony Dixon likely assumes the starting role, but don’t be surprised if rookie tight end Vance McDonald also sees action at fullback. McDonald played as a blocker in the Panthers game and was commended for his play by the 49ers coaches.

9. Confident Kicker
Phil Dawson went on record saying he loves the loud Seattle crowd. There really wasn’t anyone else in the 49ers locker room co-signing that statement. But Dawson had a good reason for it. The 15-year veteran said the noise allows him to focus on his job and not be distracted by hecklers. When it’s so loud, all you hear is the collective noise. When it’s not so loud, that’s when isolated comments can be heard by a kicker. Dawson even said he can’t hear the ball come off his leg in Seattle. The 49ers have enjoyed Dawson’s success this postseason and would like his confident kicking to continue on Sunday. Dawson is in his first postseason and has made all six of his field goals with a 49-yard kick being his longest.

8. Bennett and Avril
Seattle’s defensive front is one of the best in football and perhaps have better backups at defensive end than starters at the position. In pass-rushing situations Michael Bennett (8.5 sacks) and Cliff Avril (8.0) sacks come off the bench fresh to cause havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Starters Red Bryant (1.5 sacks) and Chris Clemons (4.5 sacks) are solid players, but have different skill sets than the super subs. Bryant is a known run-stuffer and Clemons has dealt with injuries at times in 2013. All four defensive ends will present a challenge to the 49ers offensive line, but the unit played well last week, holding the Panters to one sack.
7. Wilson's Passing Stats
Russell Wilson’s passing numbers haven’t jumped off the stat sheet in recent weeks. The second-year pro completed 50 percent of his passes (9 of 18) for 103 yards in last week’s Divisional Playoff win over the New Orleans Saints. The Seahawks didn’t need Wilson to do too much in the passing game with a strong rushing performance from Marshawn Lynch. Wilson has thrown for less than 200 yards in four of his last five games. Furthermore, Wilson hasn’t posted a multi-touchdown game since Dec. 2, a 34-7 lopsided win over the Saints.  If Lynch is bottled up on Sunday, Wilson will need to make some clutch throws.

6. Brooks on a Roll
Good luck blocking Ahmad Brooks. It seems like nobody has been able to handle the Pro Bowl outside linebacker this postseason. Brooks leads the NFL with 4.5 sacks in the playoffs. If he’s able to produce 1.5 sacks on Sunday, Brooks will tie the NFL’s mark for most sacks in a single postseason. Seahawks right tackle Breno Giacomini will have his hands full for sure. Brooks battled a cold this week, but he should be fine for Sunday.

5. Stanford Ties
One of Jim Harbaugh’s former college stars (not named Richard Sherman) is quietly having a solid season with the Seahawks. Doug Baldwin provided the game-clinching catch in the recent win over New Orleans. The 5-foot-10, 189-pound wideout pulled in a 24-yard pass on a third-and-short last week to put away the Saints and help Seattle advance to its second NFC title game appearance. Baldwin is surely motivated to perform well on the big stage and once again remind Harbaugh of his talent.
4. Physical WRs
Sherman is known for his talking, and to his credit, backing up the chatter. He’s joined in Seattle’s defensive backfield by up and coming third-year cornerback Byron Maxwell. Both Seahawks cornerbacks like to play a physical brand of football and are willing to walk the line on potential holding or pass interference penalties. That being said, the matchup to watch this game is how they’ll perform against the 49ers own physical perimeter players, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Both 49ers wideout embrace the physicality of their position and spoke confidently about winning their respective one-on-one battles slated for Sunday.

3. 'Kap' Time

When the 49ers play on the road in the playoffs, Colin Kaepernick brings it. The 49ers quarterback does whatever is necessary to make winning plays in clutch moments. Kaepernick is unafraid to thread the needle with a deep ball in tight windows. He’s also willing to use his long strides to pick up chunks of yards on the ground. That type of competitiveness will be needed on Sunday in a venue Kaepernick has never won at before. Kaepernick appears to be determined to continue his road success in the playoffs and snap his losing streak in Seattle at the same time.

2. Gore vs. Lynch
Two of the most respected running backs in the NFL will look to lead their respective teams to the Suepr Bowl. Ask anyone on either defense and they’ll tell you the key is to stop the opposing running back this week. Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch mean everything to the 49ers and Seahawks offenses, respectively. Whichever runner is able to carry the ball more and get into the end zone the most will have a big say in controlling the flow of the game. Seattle is 7-1 when Lynch gets 20 or more touches, with the only loss being to the 49ers in Week 14. Gore, on the other hand, remains a feared weapon in San Francisco’s huddle. The 49ers are 14-0 when Gore gets 25-or-more carries. Chances are good that the running back with the most carries will be on the winning side.
1. Focused and Loose
Attitude is everything this week. The 49ers are focused on the task at hand. But the group is also loose. It was an interesting development to see the club fly out to Seattle on Friday night for the game. Typically the team travels one day in advance for West Coast games. Harbaugh, however, consulted with veterans on the team and felt like the travel routine in recent weeks should continue. All week we saw a loose 49ers head coach. Harbaugh was able to laugh during his press conferences when discussing a number of topics, including Kaepernick’s recent "Beats By Dre" commercial. The behavior is worth noting because the 49ers are confident heading into the NFC title game for a third straight season. The group is certainly focused on what lies ahead, but they’re also not too tight about it either.

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They’re very similar, Frank Gore and DeAngelo Williams. They’re both very vital to their team’s success.  Gore was ninth in the regular season with 1,128 rushing yards; Williams was 18th with 843 rushing yards. The Panthers lead runner, however, shared his duties with Jonathan Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert. Williams still found the end zone against the 49ers. It was the only touchdown of that game. Both lead running backs will be essential for their respective teams. If either team can establish the run early, the play-action passing game will open up for their third-year quarterbacks. Gore’s success on the ground is paramount to the 49ers. But if Gore’s not getting the ball consistently on first and second-downs, he’s still able to impact the game with a key blitz pickup and open-field bock. Gore can impact the game in any area and does the job that three backs can do for the Panthers.