Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area and Joe Fann of NBC Sports Northwest got together this week to discuss the big NFC West showdown in Week 10.
The San Francisco 49ers (8-0) face the Seattle Seahawks (7-2) on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
Fann has a unique perspective from both sides. He spent four years covering the 49ers for 49ers.com before moving on to his current role as the Seahawks Insider at the beginning of training camp. Maiocco has covered the 49ers for the past 25 seasons.
The two Insiders shared their views of this pivotal NFC West matchup.
MAIOCCO: Joe, the 49ers might be the only unbeaten team in the NFL and they’re atop almost everyone’s power rankings at the midpoint of the season, but they have very little room for error.
I think there is more pressure on the 49ers to win Monday night – even though they own a two-game lead in the loss column. The 49ers have yet to play either of the teams that defeated Seattle. Kyle Shanahan’s club faces both of those teams, Baltimore and New Orleans, on the road in back-to-back weeks in early December.
Plus, it’s vitally important for teams to win home games within their division. That puts the pressure on the 49ers because the last thing they want is to face a must-win game Week 17 in Seattle.
That said, the Seahawks have to feel as if they are in danger of seeing their division hopes slip away with another loss, right?
FANN: If the Seahawks have any hope of winning the division, they have to win this game. But what’s funny about it is that a win not only keeps them alive in the NFC West, but it puts them in the driver’s seat.
Seattle is in a nice spot to where, at 7-2, this isn’t a must-win game in sheer terms of making the playoffs. The Seahawks should have a good shot at a wild-card spot with a 3-4 record down the stretch. Pete Carroll loves to utilize the “us against the world” mentality. He already jabbed at the media for “thinking the story is already written” through eight games.
The Seahawks, as 6.5-point road underdogs, are somewhat playing with house money. Nobody expects them to win, which you can guarantee is being talked about within Seattle’s locker room. But they also probably watched last Thursday’s game between the 49ers and Cardinals and said to themselves, “These guys are beatable.”
Do you think Arizona exposed a few deficiencies within San Francisco’s roster or do you chalk that close game up to a short week and playing on a Thursday?
MAIOCCO: What I’ve come to learn is that there is no such thing in the NFL as a bad win or a good loss. The Cardinals played the 49ers tough, no doubt. Arizona always has been a problem for the 49ers, for whatever reason. The 49ers' win on Thursday snapped an eight-game head-to-head losing streak against the Cards.
And even though the 49ers were not at all satisfied with their performance, they were thrilled with the victory. Coming off the field, it might have been the happiest I’ve seen the team this season. Maybe they were just relieved to get out of there with a victory.
Richard Sherman did his best afterward to bring his teammates back down to earth. “That was not championship football,” he said. Sherman knows the 49ers cannot play as they did against Arizona and expect to beat his former team.
The biggest issue facing the 49ers this week is finding a way to compensate for the season-ending loss of linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was a spark plug for this team. One teammate even called him the “heart and soul of the defense.” The 49ers did not look the same after Alexander left the field with a season-ending pectoral injury. Rookie Dre Greenlaw steps into the lineup Monday to make his first start. I'm sure the Seahawks will find a way to test him repeatedly.
The Seahawks have won six games by seven or fewer points, including an overtime victory at home against Tampa Bay on Sunday. What’s going on there?
FANN: Winning close has kind of become a ritual up in Seattle, much to the chagrin of its fans. The Seahawks only have one comfortable win all season (Week 4 vs. Arizona). They’re notorious for making games closer than they should, especially against inferior opponents.
And yet, somehow they always seem to find a way. This season it’s been Russell Wilson who has carried the team. He’s got 25 total touchdowns (22 passing, three rushing) to just one interception. Wilson’s QBR (78.5) and quarterback rating (118.2) are both tops in the NFL, and he’s the current betting favorite to win MVP.
The defense is to blame for most of Seattle’s struggles, and it’s why many fans feel uneasy about the team. Seattle ranks 22nd in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed, 24th in net passing yards allowed per attempt and 23rd in rushing yards allowed per attempt. Just two weeks ago, Matt Schaub carved up the Seahawks for 460 passing yards, and things weren’t any better against the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Seattle’s biggest issue is the pass rush has been non-existent. The Seahawks haven’t been able to get pressure without blitzing. The defensive line has only nine collective sacks through nine games, and linebacker Mychal Kendricks leads the team with three.
But while the Seahawks always seem to play down to inferior opponents, they also almost always find ways to keep games close against the NFL’s elite. Much of that, again, is due to Wilson’s magic.
I’m curious to see how each team approaches this game. It’s the biggest contest for the 49ers in five years, and it’s a clear opportunity for Seattle to take the reins back in the division it mostly dominated from 2013-16. Do you think there’s a chance this game reignites what used to be one of, if not the best rivalry in the NFL?
MAIOCCO: I doubt the head-to-head series ever reaches the heights it did during the era you reference because of the men in charge.
Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh loved to compete against each other. Or, actually, maybe they hated it. I’m not sure. I know that there was always added juice to Seahawks-49ers games because of the history those men had, beginning when they were at USC and Stanford, respectively.
Everything seemed a lot more personal in those days. Now, it seems as if it’s more personal for the fan bases of the two teams. The 49ers are becoming relevant again – to the point where I think we can actually return to calling this a rivalry.
The biggest storyline now, as it was a year ago, is Richard Sherman. Fans of the 49ers had a bitter dislike (is hate too strong of a word?) for Sherman. Now, he is playing at a high level for the 49ers and firmly established as a team leader for a team on the rise.
How is he regarded in Seattle?
FANN: This game has all of the makings – records, primetime stage, etc. – to reestablish the rivalry, especially among the fan bases. But I think this game will have to be a classic in order to truly do so.
As for Sherman, Seahawks fans are split. There’s a large contingent that appreciates what Sherman meant to the best stretch in franchise history. He brought the swagger to the Legion of Boom and helped turn the Seahawks into a villain, something rarely (if ever) said about a Seattle sports team. That group also understands that it was Sherman who was pushed out of Seattle, not the other way around.
Others, while still acknowledging his importance in franchise history, resent him for his bashing of the organization and Russell Wilson, in particular. Seth Wickersham’s “hit piece” on ESPN still strikes a nerve. So does Sherman’s quote in 2018 about Wilson saying, “I’ve seen him throw five interceptions in a game, too.” Many viewed that as an unnecessary potshot, which, in fairness, it probably was.
Harbaugh is gone, but I think Sherman is polarizing and outspoken enough to stoke the flames of the rivalry. Quick tangent, it’s still wild to me that Sherman, the man who once ate Thanksgiving dinner on the 50-yard line at Levi’s Stadium, is now a central figure in the championship-caliber team San Francisco has built.
Anyway, you mentioned the 49ers have little room for error, and yet, they’re massive favorites in this game. What is something within this matchup that might make 49ers fans nervous and give some optimism to Seahawks fans?
MAIOCCO: I’ll give you five aspects of this game that could enable Seattle to leave the Bay Area with a victory.
1. The 49ers must compensate for the loss of Alexander. It’s going to take the 49ers a period of time to make the adjustment to the rookie linebacker who takes his place.
2. The 49ers have moved to a wide-nine defensive alignment, which creates bigger run lanes between the tackles. Opponents average 4.7 yards per attempt against the 49ers. Chris Carson could have a big day.
3. Their most dynamic offensive weapon, tight end George Kittle, is banged up with a knee issue. I expect him to play, but he might not be moving as well as normal.
4. The 49ers expect to get three offensive starters back from long absences due to injuries: fullback Kyle Juszczyk (knee), left tackle Joe Staley (fractured leg) and right tackle Mike McGlinchey (knee). While that might sound like a boost to the 49ers, it could take those players a while to work back into game form.
5. Then, of course, there’s the Wilson factor. As well as Jimmy Garoppolo is playing, Wilson is on a different level. Wilson has the uncanny ability to make things happen when the situation is breaking down around him. He always gives the Seahawks a chance to win. And if Carson is providing a threat on the ground, that will make Wilson even more dangerous.
Let’s end it with this, Joe ... you know both of these teams very well. What has surprised you about these teams entering Week 10? And how you expect them to approach one another?
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FANN: I can’t say I’m surprised by the 49ers. I remember being on your podcast back in July and saying I was bullish on their chances this season. Now, I didn’t expect an 8-0 start, but that roster is loaded from top to bottom.
If there is a surprise, it’s how well Emmanuel Moseley, Daniel Brunskill and Justin Skule have played in place of Ahkello Witherspoon, Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley, respectively. The overall health of the secondary must also be a welcome change of pace for 49ers fans as well.
As for the Seahawks, I’m surprised at just how feeble the pass rush has been. Ziggy Ansah hasn’t been a factor and teams are doubling Jadeveon Clowney without consequence.
I expect Seattle to lean on Chris Carson. I don’t anticipate Seattle dropping Wilson back 40 times against San Francisco’s vaunted pass rush (unless the game script calls for otherwise, obviously).
The Seahawks will also aim to limit the 49ers rushing attack and hope for a poor decision or two from Jimmy Garoppolo. If Garoppolo is as sharp as he was against Arizona, the Seahawks may not stand a chance.
I ultimately think it will take a perfect performance from Seattle in order to win. Wilson has to continue to play at an MVP level, and the Seahawks must win the turnover battle. Selfishly, I hope this is one that goes down to the wire and is a classic that sets the table for an equally important game in Week 17.