Maiocco vs. O'Neil: Who has edge in NFC title game?

Maiocco vs. O'Neil: Who has edge in NFC title game?
January 18, 2014, 3:00 pm
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In 18 games this season, Kaepernick has thrown just nine interceptions. Three of those picks came against the Seahawks. (USATSI)

Editor’s note: In the days leading up to Sunday’s NFC Championship game, old friends CSNBayArea.com’s Matt Maiocco and Danny O’Neil of 710 ESPN Seattle exchanged a few emails.

Here’s what they wrote to each other as the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, rivals in the NFC West, prepared for a game that would determine which team advances to Super Bowl XLVIII:

MAIOCCO
Call me crazy, but I’m thinking this whole 71-16 thing is an aberration.

Absolutely, the Seahawks are a very good team. Absolutely, CenturyLink Field is a difficult place for opposing teams.

[RELATED: 49ers trade for Boldin paying off, while Harvin remains sidelined]

But there’s no way the 49ers are going to experience the kind of bludgeoning they’ve suffered in the great Northwest in their past two trips.

The 49ers are playing very well. They’ve matched the longest win streak the franchise has enjoyed under coach Jim Harbaugh. And they’ve gone on the road for victories the past three weeks – Arizona, Green Bay and Carolina.

The 49ers finally have two good wide receivers (Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin) to go along with tight end Vernon Davis. Their defense is playing well. The 49ers appear to be peaking at the right time.

So, Danny, could the 49ers be catching the Seahawks at a vulnerable time?

O’NEIL
I'm not going to call you crazy, but I am going to point out the fact that during San Francisco’s winning streak -- as impressive as it is at eight games and counting -- the 49ers have scored more than 30 points just twice.

[RELATED: Vegas still giving 49ers third best odds to win Super Bowl]

And as good as San Francisco’s defense has been since December started, it's possible the Seahawks’ defense has been even better in that time as Seattle hasn't allowed more than 20 points in any of its last six games.

That includes two games against the Saints, who managed a combined total of 21 points over the course of eight quarters or two fewer than San Francisco allowed over four quarters in that Nov. 17 game in New Orleans during that 49ers' loss.

While I don't think Seattle's last two victories over San Francisco at CenturyLink Field are necessarily indicative of what's going to happen on Sunday, I don't think it's an aberration, either.

Colin Kaepernick has not played well in those games and Seattle capitalized on his mistakes. While he has been able to reel off a couple of runs, the fact remains that under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have scored more than 20 points in only one of the six meetings against Seattle and that was Harbaugh's NFL coaching debut when Ted Ginn scored two special-teams touchdowns in the span of a minute in the fourth quarter to cinch the victory.

I think of all the players on the field Sunday, Kaepernick is the one that will be facing the most pressure metaphorically, and perhaps literally, depending on the potency of Seattle's pass rush.

MAIOCCO
There’s no question Kaepernick is under pressure to perform with a steady hand. He was particularly shaky in the Week 2 game – the worst game of his 28-start NFL career.

In 18 games this season, Kaepernick has thrown just nine interceptions. Three of those picks came against the Seahawks in Week 2.

But I think there’s equal pressure on both quarterbacks. The 49ers believe they have a good recipe against Russell Wilson. They don’t want to blitz him too often. They’ll want to generate some heat with a four-man rush and keep him contained within the pocket.

With these two defenses, the quarterback who serves as the better “game manager” will give his team the best chance at winning. It might not come down to which quarterback wins the game, but rather which quarterback does not lose it.

O’NEIL
The contrast in the two conference championship games is striking. The AFC game features two legends in their 30s, both piloting modern pass-oriented offenses. The NFC games features a pair of 20-somethings in charge of throwback offenses.

And if it isn't one quarterback’s mistakes that decide this game, then it's going to be the rushing yards. The team that has rushed for more yards has won the last eight regular-season meetings between these teams.

Not only that, but Frank Gore is a certified Seahawks menace. There have been five games in Seattle's history in which the Seahawks have allowed more than 200 yards rushing and Gore is responsible for two of them.

Gore's 51-yard run was the difference in the last regular-season meeting between the teams, and it very well may be the team with the longest rush wins this game.

MAIOCCO
That makes perfect sense to me. As much focus that's going to be on Kaepernick and Wilson, they might need to step out of the way and let Gore and Marshawn Lynch do the heavy lifting.

I'll circle back to the top. I'd be shocked if this game is anything like 42-13 or 29-3.

Danny, I believe we're going to be treated to the kind of game everyone has been envisioning since that March day when the Seahawks acquired Percy Harvin and a short time later the 49ers worked a deal with Baltimore to pick up Anquan Boldin.

These teams seemed to be competing every day of the offseason, too.

O’NEIL
To quote Bart Scott, “Can't wait.”