SEATTLE (AP)Even before the transactions of the week, the hype was building. Heated rivals playing the final game of the NFL regular season with massive implications for the playoffs all centered around the winner claiming the NFC West title.
And then for an added layer of drama to Sunday night’s matchup between Seattle and San Francisco, the Seahawks brought back Marshawn Lynch this week for one more ride in a Seattle uniform.
A big game? You bet.
“This is definitely a week you don’t have to try at all to get your team up for the game,” San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It’ll be the same thing for them. Just the times I’ve been in this situation in the past, it’s extremely fun to coach. You have everyone’s attention, everyone is completely into it. No stone goes unturned by anyone. You don’t have to push anyone on that. Everyone’s going to be locked in and that’s all you can do.”
After a memorable Week 10 matchup in which Seattle prevailed in overtime, the encore between the Seahawks and 49ers has ever more at stake. Perhaps the most important meeting between the division rivals since the 2013 NFC championship game won by Seattle because of what it means to the NFC playoff picture.
If San Francisco wins, it’s simple. The 49ers will claim the division and home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs if they can win in Seattle for the first time since 2011.
A Seattle victory will give the Seahawks their fifth division title in Pete Carroll’s 10 seasons in charge and ensure at least the No. 3 seed and a home playoff game. Depending on what happens earlier in the day, Seattle could move up to No. 2 or No. 1.
The loser has a date with an NFC East host – currently Philadelphia – in the opening round of the playoffs.
“We know it’s going to be fun. We know it’s going to be super intense,” Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright said. “But we’re not looking too far ahead.”
The return of Lynch was a positive jolt to a Seattle locker room that needed one after last week’s loss to Arizona that also saw running backs Chris Carson (hip) and C.J. Prosise (arm) lost for the season to injuries. He hasn’t played in 14 months, his last game coming in Week 6 of last season with Oakland. The last time he took a carry for Seattle was its NFC divisional round playoff loss to Carolina in January 2016.
Yet Lynch is all anyone wants to talk about. And if he can look a little bit like the Lynch of old, he could be just what Seattle needs going into the playoffs.
“The fun part about playing with him is he can make any play a great play,” Seattle QB Russell Wilson said.
George Kittle was a spectator when the teams met in November. Jadeveon Clowney was the best player on the field. Both have dealt with injuries at various points of the season and both are likely to be major factors on Sunday.
Kittle has 32 catches for 432 yards and three touchdowns in the past five games. He had 13 receptions two weeks ago against the Falcons and is fourth among all tight ends with 78 receptions for the season.
Clowney has missed Seattle’s past two games with a combo of illness and an ongoing core injury he first suffered against the 49ers. Clowney was as disruptive as he’s been all of his career in the first meeting with one sack, five tackles and a fumble return for a touchdown.
“It helps knowing if we get this one we potentially get a bye,” Clowney said. “I’m trying to play for that right now.”
Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is set to make his first appearance in Seattle, having arrived in San Francisco in 2017 after the 49ers had already played there, missing last year’s game with an injury. CenturyLink Field has been a house or horrors for the Niners since opening in 2002. San Francisco has won only four times there, in 2002 with Jeff Garcia at QB, in 2006 and ’11 with Alex Smith, and 2008 with J.T. O’Sullivan. Garoppolo knows it won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be loud,” he said. “We know it’s going to be a hostile environment. I can’t wait for it. It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
San Francisco had trouble protecting Garoppolo last week with starting center Weston Richburg out for the season with a knee injury and right guard Mike Person sidelined with a neck injury. Person is expected to miss this game as well, putting pressure on backups Daniel Brunskill and Ben Garland to perform. The Niners allowed a season-high six sacks last week and surrendered five in the first meeting with the Seahawks when Garoppolo had no time to push the ball downfield.
Seattle’s been equally shaky protecting Wilson. The Seahawks have allowed 25 sacks in the past six games, including five last week against Arizona. And they’re without left tackle Duane Brown following minor knee surgery.
San Francisco’s once dominant defense has struggled a bit in the second half of the season. After allowing only 11 points per game the first seven contests, the Niners have given up 26.5 points per game over the last eight weeks for the ninth-worst total in the league. Seattle scored 27 in the first meeting with San Francisco but that included one defensive touchdown and a field goal in overtime.
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