The 49ers have won eight in a row, including two straight playoff victories in hostile conditions on the road.
Yet now San Francisco faces the supreme test. If the 49ers want to return to the Super Bowl, they’ll have to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, which is a death trap for visiting teams. In their most recent two games at CenturyLink Field, the 49ers have been outscored 71-16 and have looked flustered by the noise and rowdy “12th Man” atmosphere.
In both games, in fact, quarterback Colin Kaepernick had trouble being heard by his teammates in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
The Niners go into Sunday’s game with both the Seahawks, and the noise, on their minds.
“He just has to be louder,” Niners center Jonathan Goodwin told reporters this week, when asked how Kaepernick will deal with the issue. “There’s really no special tricks. You’ve just got to be as loud as possible and hope everyone hears it.”
If Sunday’s game were to be played on a neutral field or in San Francisco, it’s possible the 49ers would be favored. But with the game at CenturyLink, the Seahawks are 3½-point favorites.
How can the 49ers turn the tables and beat the Seahawks on their home turf? Here are five keys to victory:
- Get an early lead. In their past two games in Seattle, the 49ers fell behind early, the crowd fed on the early Seahawks success and the 49ers started to come apart. This time, San Francisco needs to score early, get a lead and force Seattle to come from behind. “Once we start winning, the first points on the board, that will take the fans out of it,” Niners cornerback Carlos Rogers told the Associated Press.
- Stop Lynch. The Seahawks offense begins with running back Marshawn Lynch. If the Niners can contain Lynch – something they haven’t done in Seattle, where he’s averaged more than 100 yards rushing per game against them – they can force quarterback Russell Wilson into throwing downfield. While Wilson’s a terrific playmaker and winner, he’s been in a recent slump, and the 49ers showed in their 19-17 victory in San Francisco that they can handle him. In that game they shut off his outside escape routes and allowed him to rush for just 2 yards, while holding him to 15-of-25 throwing for 199 yards.
- Keep emotions in check: The 49ers badly want to knock off their NFC West rivals who ended their two-year division reign. They’ll be pumped up for the game the way the Carolina Panthers were last week in their game vs. the Niners. San Francisco can’t afford to do what the Panthers did, and get flagged for late hits, unnecessary roughness and taunting. They’ll need to play with emotion but without committing stupid fouls.
- Take care of the football: In their first meeting in Seattle this season, Kaepernick threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in a 29-3 defeat. The Niners need to win the turnover battle to have a chance this time, and that’s not easy. The Seahawks’ average a plus-1.3 turnover margin per game at home. Over the past three seasons, the 49ers have averaged 0.82 turnovers per game, but in their past three games in Seattle, they’ve averaged 2.33. In practice this week, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has preached ball security. “(I) remind them to protect the ball, daily and hourly,” he said.
- Make plays on special teams: The 49ers need to win the field-position battle to give them room to operate. In the past two games in Seattle, it’s been the Seahawks who’ve come up with big special teams plays. This time, the 49ers need some of their own. LaMichael James has come close to breaking a kickoff return in recent games. Now would be the time.