49ers-Seahawks showdown rife with playoff implications

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49ers-Seahawks showdown rife with playoff implications

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.

[RELATED: Carroll, Harbaugh joke about greeting cards]

"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.

[RELATED: Justin Smith might not play Sunday]

"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.

 

Colts fire GM Ryan Grigson after five seasons

Colts fire GM Ryan Grigson after five seasons

INDIANAPOLIS -- Ryan Grigson spent tens of millions in free agency, trying to turn the Indianapolis Colts into a Super Bowl contender.

When most of those big investments went belly up, the first-time general manager paid the price.

On Saturday, Colts owner Jim Irsay fired Grigson after five up-and-down years that ended with Indy missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.

"It was a tough decision, well thought out and in the end the right decision for the Colts," Irsay said.

Initially, Grigson looked like a genius.

He hit it big on his first four draft picks - quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and receiver T.Y. Hilton - and used a series of shrewd, cost-effective moves to deliver one of the greatest turnarounds in league history.

But when Grigson's costly misfires like first-round bust Bjoern Werner in 2013, trading a first-round pick for Trent Richardson in 2014 or loading up on a group of aging, high-priced free agents to make a Super Bowl run in 2015 and an anxious fan base, Irsay had no choice.

The timing, almost three weeks after the season ended, was strange - and comes after many thought the delay meant Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano were both safe.

Each agreed to contracts last January that was supposed to keep them together through the 2019 season.

Thirteen months later, Grigson is gone and Pagano's fate may rest in the hands of a new GM.

Grigson, by trade, was a gambler who refused to play it safe.

"I think the guys that sit on their hands, they've got to live with themselves and look in the mirror and realize they didn't take any chances," he once said. "They've got to look at themselves and say, 'Did I even deserve this opportunity?' If you just sit on your hands and say, 'I'm going to play it safe all the time,' you might be middle of the pack. But if you don't take a swing, you're never going to hit it out of the park."

Irsay appreciated Grigson's unconventional style and penchant for taking chances.

What he didn't like was the underwhelming payout.

In five seasons, Grigson made 15 trades for players and only one, Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis, played in Indy's season finale. Grigson also drafted 38 players - 18 of whom finished the season with the Colts. Eleven were out of the NFL.

Then there was free agency, where Grigson signed dozens of expensive players. Only 11 were still on Indy's roster when the season ended, 18 others were out of the NFL.

With an estimated $60 million to spend in free agency this year and a chance to get the Colts righted for the prime years of Luck's career, Irsay couldn't afford to roll the dice again with Grigson so he made the change.

The 44-year-old Purdue graduate's blunt personality didn't always mesh with coach Chuck Pagano. Irsay even acknowledged last summer that the two men needed to resolve their differences before he gave them the extensions.

Players didn't always get along with him, either.

"Thank God. 'Unwarranted Arrogance' just ran into a brick wall called karma," Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee posted on Twitter after word first leaked.

Grigson also drew the wrath of Patriots' fans by tipping off NFL officials that Tom Brady was using improperly inflated footballs during the 2015 AFC championship game. The Deflategate controversy eventually led to a four-game suspension for Brady as well as a fine and the loss draft picks for the Patriots.

And despite Irsay's repeated pleas to better protect Luck, Grigson, a former offensive lineman, never quite figured it out.

Luck missed 10 games because of injuries over the past two seasons and was sacked 41 times last season. The first real glimmer of hope appeared in December when the Colts held Minnesota and Oakland without a sack in back-to back games - the only times all season they didn't allow a sack.

When Grigson arrived, the Colts were coming off a 2-14 season and were about to release Peyton Manning and several other aging veterans in a salary cap purge.

So Grigson cleaned house.

He fired Jim Caldwell, hired Pagano and revamped the roster with low-budget free agents to work with the cornerstone of the future, Luck.

It worked. The man once dubbed by a previous boss as a "great" expansion team general manager, turned the Colts into a surprising 11-5 playoff-bound team.

Indy finished 11-5 each of the next two seasons, too, and advanced one step deeper in the playoffs each season.

The steady progression turned the Colts into a trendy Super Bowl pick in 2015, a trek that was derailed by a litany of injuries that forced the Colts to use five different quarterbacks just to finish 8-8.

Waiting for Shanahan could be a good thing for 49ers

Waiting for Shanahan could be a good thing for 49ers

The 49ers were willing to be patient in securing their next head coach.

Depending on the outcome of the Atlanta Falcons’ game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, they could be required to wait another two weeks.

The other five organizations with vacancies after the regular season have filled their head-coach positions with four assistants from teams that did not qualify for the playoffs and former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, whom the Denver Broncos hired after his team was bounced in the AFC wild-card round.

Early in the 49ers’ search to replace Chip Kelly, the top targets appeared to be Josh McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinators for two of the top-three scoring teams in the NFL.

The coach-general manager team of McDaniels and New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio was the runaway favorite to be the package deal, according to sources close to the 49ers’ coaching search.

But when Caserio chose to remain as Bill Belichick’s top personnel lieutenant – just has he has in the past when other opportunities presented themselves – the job became less attractive to McDaniels, according to those sources. McDaniels announced on Monday he would remain with the Patriots for at least another year.

With McDaniels out of the picture, Shanahan became the clear favorite over Seattle assistant Tom Cable. And once Cable publicly stepped aside due to suspicions he was only being used to secure a commitment from Shanahan, only one candidate remained for the job.

Since the middle of this week, Shanahan has been the presumptive coach of the 49ers. Falcons coach Dan Quinn was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator two years ago when he was officially hired just hours after the Super Bowl. He knows he drill. And this week he announced to the Falcons staff that Shanahan would be the next coach of the 49ers, according to the NFL Network.

Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, the 49ers will be allowed to interview Shanahan next week – most likely, Tuesday in Atlanta. Shanahan will be involved in the process to hire the next general manager. Minnesota assistant general manager George Paton appears to be the favorite. The 49ers expect the general manager position to be filled early in the week.

If the Falcons lose, the 49ers would be able to hire Shanahan on their own time frame. It would not be expected to take long.

But if the Falcons win, the 49ers would have to wait until after Feb. 5, when the Super Bowl will be played in Houston, to hire Shanahan.

There is an advantage to being forced to wait. In the long term, the 49ers could benefit from their next head coach gaining the experience of a Super Bowl week and calling a game on the biggest stage in all of sports.