SAN FRANCISCO – Greetings from Candlestick Park, where it’s suddenly summer again and the NFC West co-leading Seahawks and 49ers are preparing for what should one very hot Thursday night matchup, regardless of the temperature.
The 49ers have won the past three games in this series, including sweeping the Seahawks last season for the first time since 2006. But the Seahawks pulled to within two points, 19-17, in the fourth quarter in their opener here last season and seemed to have the momentum – before Ted Ginn Jr. returned a kickoff (102 yards) and a punt (55) for scores to make it 33-17. In the Week 16 rematch in Seattle, Marshawn Lynch became the first back to rush for more than 100 yards against the 49ers since 2009 and the first to score a rushing TD against them in 2011. But the 49ers prevailed 19-17 as David Akers kicked a 39-yard field with less than three minutes to play.
But that’s all history, because neither team is the same this season.
The Seahawks’ defense is better – even more aggressive, faster and disruptive with the additions of rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and rookie rush-end Bruce Irvin; and second-year starters K.J. Wright, Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are playing better, more consistently and with more confidence. The Seahawks’ offense is now in the hands of rookie QB Russell Wilson, who is coming off the best game of his still-young NFL career in the upset of the Patriots on Sunday. And he is throwing to Sidney Rice, who missed both games last season because of injuries; Braylon Edwards, who was with the 49ers last season; and Doug Baldwin, who had a TD catch in each game against the 49ers last season. Each had a TD catch against the Patriots.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have the No. 1-ranked defense in the league and their offense is much more diverse this season than it was last year in its first season under coach Jim Harbaugh. The primary problems for the Seahawks’ offense are far too familiar – the Pro Bowl quartet of defensive lineman Justin Smith, inside linebacker Patrick Willis, cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson. But on offense, Harbaugh is now sprinkling in some plays for backup QB Colin Kaepernick, passing from formations that looked loaded to run and running from spread formations that look like they’re intended to pass.
Wilson has thrown five TD passes of 20-plus yards, which leads the league; while the 49ers are the only defense in the league that has not allowed a TD pass of 20-plus yards.
But some things never change. The strength of both offenses remains the legs of Lynch and Frank Gore. The ability to run the ball allows each team to setup its play-action passing game.
The first thing the Seahawks need to do is act like this is a home game. They have turned the ball over 10 times in their first six games, and eight have come in their three road games. The 49ers have forced 10 turnovers.
“We need to play well on the road again,” coach Pete Carroll said after practice on Wednesday. “We did a good job in Carolina getting out of there with a win (two weeks ago), and we need to do the right things and not make mistakes and put ourselves in difficult situations on the road.
“They’re really good at home in making you do that, so it’s a big challenge for us. We’ve played much better at home than we have on the road. We’ve taken care of the football better and all of that stuff. We need to get that done in this game.”
The 49ers are coming off a 26-3 loss to the Giants here on Sunday, but they’re also 4-0 after defeats under Harbaugh and have forced 14 turnovers in those games while outscoring their opponents 93-11.
The loser of this game will remain above .500 – at 4-3 – but the 49ers lost only three games all of last season when they ran away with the NFC West title and all the way to the conference championship game. The winner will be 5-2, and the Seahawks have not started that well since 2005 – when they won 11 consecutive games and finished 13-3, both franchise records.
But that’s putting the victory before what it’s going to take to achieve it.
Enjoy what should be a very entertaining game, with kickoff set for 5:20 p.m. on the NFL Network as well as KONG in the greater Seattle area. You also can catch the radio broadcast on 710 ESPN and KIRO 97.3.