One more win and the Seahawks will secure themselves a playoff spot, but more than just a postseason berth is on the line today. The 49ers are being touted as the best team in not just the NFC, but in the entire NFL, and as the saying goes, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Seattle's earned themselves some favorable press, but a win today will serve notice that this is not a team to be taken lightly this January.
But best or not, San Francisco is vulnerable. Colin Kaepernick is already twice the passer that Alex Smith has ever been, but he's still prone to the same mistakes as any other young quarterback. Yes, in five starts he's thrown seven touchdowns to just two interceptions, but he's also fumbled the ball nine times. If Chris Clemons and the rest of the Seahawks defense can put some pressure on Kaepernick (easier said than done, given his mobility and his o-line's strong blocking), they might be able to force some turnovers. However, that's all moot if Seattle's pass coverage can't keep TE Vernon Davis and WR MIchael Crabtree from breaking free for big gains.
The 49ers' running game is also having some trouble as of late. Back in week seven, Frank Gore gouged the Seahawks for 131 yards on just 16 carries, but he hasn't had a 100 yard game since then. Injuries have slowed him considerably, and he's had to shoulder more of the workload now that his backup Kendall Hunter is on injured reserve (the third RB, rookie LaMichael James, is averaging 1.4 fewer yards per carry than Hunter). The injury their best run blocker LG Mike Iupati suffered last week against the Patriots won't help things for them, either.
However, the biggest injury news for San Francisco is that their star defensive lineman Justin Smith is questionable for the game with an elbow injury. Smith's ability to disrupt plays around the line of scrimmage was one of the main reasons for the 49ers' win in week seven, and without him on the field the Seahawks will be able to devote more attention to stopping pass rusher Aldon Smith.
The Seahawks made two changes to their roster this week, but they shouldn't factor in nearly as much as the 49ers' problems. DT Jason Jones, who has been a fixture on the nickel package rush line this season, was placed on IR with a knee injury, but his contributions so far have been inconsistent at best. In twelve games, Jones tallied just three sacks and five QB hits; the player replacing him, rookie DL Greg Scruggs, has two sacks and five QB hits on the year even though he's seen just a fraction of the defensive snaps that Jones has. To fill Jones' place on the roster, rookie DT Hebron Fangupu was promoted from the practice squad.
The team's other roster move may actually make them even more dangerous in the passing game. Third string TE Evan Moore, who has struggled all season catching passes despite that supposedly being his specialty, was released (he struggled to get separation from defenders and caught just one of the six passes thrown his way), and to take his place on the roster TE Sean McGrath was promoted from the practice squad. McGrath, a rookie from division II school Henderson State, emerged during training camp as a favorite target of every quarterback on the roster, and he played well enough to earn himself a spot on the practice squad.
The depleted secondary may see the return of CBs Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond, as both have been upgraded to questionable this week after missing games with hamstring injuries, but that's mitigated somewhat by S Jeron Johnson also being listed as questionable with a groin injury. WR Sidney Rice is questionable with a knee injury, but he was able to participate in Friday's practice so the chances of him playing today are actually pretty good.
The production of the Seahawks' offense is also going to be heavily scrutinized. After being the first team to score 50+ points in back-to-back games since 1950, how will they fare against a 49ers squad that's allowed the fewest points in the NFL? We'll have to wait until this evening for the answer to that, but I will say this: if Seattle makes it three in a row, you'll need a chisel to remove the smile from my face.
UPDATE (5:12): Justin Smith's streak of 185 straight starts comes to an end today. Smith is the most notable player appearing on San Francisco's inactive list for the game, and his absence is good news for the Seahawks. For Seattle, both Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond are inactive, which means Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell are going to be called on for the second week in a row to step up their game. The secondary did get one small break in that backup safety Jeron Johnson will be active, so multi-DB coverage packages will still be a viable part of Gus Bradley's gameplan.
On offense, starting WR Sidney Rice is active, although he may not play as many snaps as usual due to his knee injury. Surprisingly, G John Moffitt is inactive for the game, so rookie DL-turned-OL J.R. Sweezy will get the start in his place. G Rishaw Johnson is also inactive for the game, which means that Lemuel Jeanpierre will effectively be the only real backup available for all three interior o-line positions (Frank Omiyale could play guard in a pinch, but his strongest position by far is tackle).