What to watch for when the Seahawks play the 49ers in the wild-card round — plus Bob Condotta’s prediction

The addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference starting with the 2020 season obviously skews some of the historical statistics. Seattle would already be done for the season if not for the added spot.

But, the rules are the rules, and the Seahawks will gladly take what is their 15th playoff berth in 20 years — trailing only New England’s 17 in that same span — and hope to “do something with it,” as coach Pete Carroll said this week.

The Seahawks often have since Carroll arrived in 2010, winning at least one game in the playoffs in seven of the previous nine years they have made it since 2010.

But Saturday’s game in Santa Clara against the 49ers will be as challenging as any with Seattle listed as a 10-point underdog against a team that has won 10 in a row and also swept the Seahawks this year in two games by a combined 48-20 , holding Seattle to just one offensive touchdown.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup with the 49ers with our weekly keys to the game and prediction.

Matchup to watch

Seahawks OTs Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas against SF DE Nick Bosa

Bosa led the NFL this year with 18.5 sacks. He was also remarkably consistent, with at least one sack in all but three games. He had three in two games against Seattle — two in a 27-7 win in Week Two and another in a 21-13 win on Dec. 15. Seattle’s rookie tackles, Charles Cross on the left side and Abraham Lucas on the right, had solid years. But a road playoff game against one of the best pass rushers in the league will be something new. Bosa lines up on each side throughout the game to try to make it hard to pinpoint where he is, so both Cross and Lucas will get their shots at him.

Player to watch

QB Geno Smith

Has Smith been slumping? Just regressing to the mean? Struggling playing without as deep a receiving corps as he had earlier in the year? Whatever the case — and it’s probably some of all of those things as well as facing some good defenses — he has five of his eight lowest passer ratings in the last five games of the year, as well as four of his five lowest completion percentages. The recent downturn probably won’t greatly influence the team’s decision on Smith in the offseason when he becomes a free agent. But how he handles the playoffs could, especially if he can somehow lift the Seahawks to a victory. Seattle, of course, has lots of big challenges in trying to beat the 49ers, who appear stronger on each side of the line of scrimmage. But Seattle has an experience edge at QB with Smith and his 51 career starts against rookie Brock Purdy and his five. Smith needs to perform like the more experienced player — ie, not making any critical mistakes — and as he did in the first two-thirds of the season for Seattle to have a chance.

Coaching decision to watch

Sticking with the run

While Smith’s play will be critical — there’s no way Seattle pulls this off without a few big plays in the passing game — the Seahawks also need to run the ball more effectively than they did in either of the first two games. And they also may need to exercise more patience with it. In each, Seattle ran it just 14 times, tying a season low (also set in a loss to Carolina). True, Seattle wasn’t running it really well — a combined 106 yards on 28 carries, with 86 on 25 from running backs — and fell behind early each time, forcing the Seahawks to throw it more. And true, the 49ers have one of the best run defenses in the NFL, allowing just 3.4 yards per carry this year, second in the league. But barring a big, early deficit, this feels like a game where Seattle is going to have to force the issue on the ground — especially if the expected deluge hits — and hope that rookie Kenneth Walker III can duplicate his recent success of three straight 100 – yard games to end the season.

The X-factor

Playing carefree

The Seahawks are the team with nothing to lose in this one while the 49ers are the team with the expectations of suddenly being considered the favorite to advance to the Super Bowl out of the NFC in a year when San Francisco made a significant “win now” move to trade for Christian McCaffrey in October. And Carroll and the rest of the team seemed to embrace the “loose” angle all week, with player after player reminding everyone that few expected Seattle to make it this far. Can the Seahawks translate that attitude onto the field? The first two or three possessions figure to be really telling. If the Seahawks can stay in it, maybe the team with more to lose will start to feel the tension.

Player who could surprise

CB Tariq Woolen

OK, so anything Woolen does is hardly a surprise at this point. But if you’re looking for someone who may feel he has something to prove specifically to the 49ers it’s Woolen, who made a critical mistake to leave George Kittle wide open for a touchdown in the third quarter of San Francisco’s Dec. 15 wins in Seattle. It’s unfair to judge Woolen much by stats since opponents learned early to throw the other way. Still, Woolen doesn’t have a pick in his last five games after making six in the first 12. Woolen breaking that drought — and true, a pass has to come his direction for him to even have a chance — would be really timely for Seattle.

Key stat

Pressures allowed

Sacks can be an incomplete way of measuring how a team performs up front on either side of the ball, since a quarterback can dictate a lot of whether a sack actually occurs. Pro Football Focus keeps a stat called pressures — tabulating the times a defense gets pressure on a QB, and how often a team gives up pressure — to try to define it more clearly. And in each of the first two games, the 49ers got the better on each side of the ball. In the first game, SF’s defensive front got 15 pressures while Seattle managed just three. In the second game, SF got 16 and Seattle seven. That means SF had a combined 31 pressures to Seattle’s 10 in the two games, Anything close to a similar ratio, and it’s going to be a long day for the Seahawks.


49ers, 23, Seahawks 10

There are reasons to hope the Seahawks can pull this off — the magic that Smith has shown most of the year, the way Seattle finished the season to get into the playoffs. But the 49ers have all those kinds of things going for them, as well, along with simply being a really talented team. And that seems likely to win out.

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