The NFC West title will not be at stake when the division-leading San Francisco 49ers face the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night. But the game has plenty of implications for both teams.
The 49ers (10-3-1) are already in the playoffs. But they might need two victories to finish off the regular season to head into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, which guarantees a first-round bye.
The Seahawks (9-5) can wrap up a spot in the playoffs with a victory over the 49ers. They can also keep alive their slim chance of winning the division title.
"All we can do is focus on this game right here," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We'll have no trouble focusing. They're a great team, and coming home and all that, it will be exciting to get ready."
The 49ers won the first meeting, 13-6, on Oct. 18 at Candlestick Park. Since that time, the 49ers changed quarterbacks and the Seahawks have taken flight with their own rookie quarterback.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick got his chance to play when Alex Smith, the third-leading passer in the NFL at the time, sustained a concussion. When Smith was cleared medically, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh decided to stick with Kaepernick.
In Kaepernick's five NFL starts, the 49ers are 4-1. The 49ers are coming off a 41-34 victory over the New England Patriots last week in Foxboro, Mass. Kaepernick threw four touchdown passes and was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson had his worst game of the season when the clubs met earlier this season. He completed 9 of 23 for 122 yards with no touchdowns and one interception at Candlestick Park.
Now, both teams are playing their best football of the season.
The Seattle offense has put up huge numbers the past two weeks, scoring 58 and 50 points in back-to-back blowout victories over Arizona and Buffalo. The Seahawks became the first team since the 1950 New York Giants to score 50 points in consecutive games in the same season.
This is a game that will feature two hard-hitting teams, and two coaches who are familiar with one another. Harbaugh and Carroll had an adversarial relationship as coaches at Stanford and USC. In three head-to-head games in the NFL, Harbaugh is unbeaten.
While both coaches joked this week about not exchanging Christmas cards, Harbaugh suggested he has a lot of respect for Carroll's coaching. He said there are certain characteristics of a Carroll-coached team.
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"Enthusiastic team. They play with a lot of energy. Play a high level of energy, intensity," Harbaugh said "Well-coached teams."
Both teams use similar formulas from their young, mobile quarterbacks to strong defenses. The 49ers rank second in the NFL in total defense, while the Seahawks are No. 3. The 49ers are preparing to play without All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith, who missed most of the second half against the New England Patriots with a left elbow injury.
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"The Seahawks are a hot team right now," Kaepernick said. "Their defense is playing great. Their offense is putting up points, so we have to be ready."
Seattle, which has not lost a home game this season, has won five of its past six games overall. Over the past six games, Wilson has led the charge with 11 touchdown passes and just one interception.
"Our trust in him has just skyrocketed in the last month," Carroll said. "He's ready, and we try to utilize every way we can to make it hard on our opponents."
“That’s our goal,” 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. “We want to get the bye. We don’t shy away from what our goals are. We want to win the division, get the bye and go into the playoffs and go on from there. That’s something we control if we win out. It’s a big game, as far as the division and getting the bye.”
Kaepernick and the 49ers will a tough challenge in dealing with a loud environment at CenturyLink Field, along with a strong challenger. This is Kaepernick’s most important start, as the 49ers hold a half-game lead over the Green Bay Packers for the No. 2 seed with two weeks remaining.
"We're both great teams that want to win," Wilson said. "It's going to be a one of a kind (atmosphere). This is the best place to play in the NFL in terms of the energy."
With as well as both teams are playing, it's not out of the question there could be a third matchup down the road in the NFC playoffs.