To beat the Seahawks, the 49ers defense will need to contain running back Marshawn Lynch. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
And now, into the belly of the Beast Mode.
After a competitive offseason, two chippy regular-season matchups and a long trail of verbal jousts between the 49ers and Seahawks, it comes down to an NFC Championship Game between the two this Sunday.
It may not have been inevitable, but it’s certainly fitting.
Before this season even began, the 49ers and Seahawks were labeled my many national writers as the most heated rivals in the NFL, given their talent, history and feuding head coaches, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll.
After the Seahawks conquered the 49ers at CenturyLink Field in September, 29-3, and Seattle rolled off 12 wins in its first 13 games, it appeared certain that if the Niners were to return to the Super Bowl, they’d have to beat their NFC West rivals again, and in the house of horrors for opposing teams that is Century Link.
The 49ers have lost their last two games in Seattle, but have now won eight straight – counting their divisional-round playoff victory over the Panthers in North Carolina this past weekend – and appear to be a much different team than the one crushed by the ’Hawks in Game 2 of this season.
“That’s in the past,” said 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after the victory over the No. 2 seeded Panthers – who also beat San Francisco in the regular season. “This is a different situation. We have to go out there and win it.”
That’s exactly the tack the 49ers have taken over the past three weeks, all on the road. First came a victory in Arizona over the Cardinals to secure the No. 5 seed, followed by a victory over the Packers in freezing Green Bay and a decision over the Panthers.
Right now, the 49ers feel like road warriors, with three straight victories in us-against-them matchups that they’ve won with a businesslike approach. Against the fired-up Panthers, the 49ers also showed some emotion, but they also took a 60-minute approach. They were down early, but not out. They had confidence.
A goal-line stand in the second quarter that forced the Panthers to settle for a field goal was a turning point.
Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman said it sent this message: “We’re here to play, and it’s going to be a long day.”
Now, the 49ers are on a roll. Whether they can win in Seattle, however, is a far different question. The noise and energy level at CenturyLink seem to have knocked San Francisco off balance in its last two trips there. Running back Marshawn Lynch has been in true "Beast Mode" in those games, gouging the 49ers run defense. And In two games there, Kaepernick has looked like a different (and far worse) player, throwing four interceptions.
But back-to-back playoff wins on the road have given San Francisco players a feeling they don’t want to let slip away.
“We don’t want it to end for us,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “We understand that we have to go up there in a hostile environment with a really good football team and do what a lot of people probably aren’t going to pick us to do. That’s OK with us. We understand what we have to do.”
So far, NFL oddsmakers are siding with the Seahawks, who have been made early 3½-point favorites.