There certainly will be no love lost when the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers meet in a battle for NFC West supremacy. The Seahawks (4-2) enter the game riding the momentum of a thrilling victory over the New England Patriots, while the 49ers (4-2) are licking their wounds following a thorough whooping at the hands of the New York Giants. Throw in the backdrop of drama between former Pac-10 rivals Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh, and this game could break out into backyard brawl in front of a raucous crowd in Candlestick Park.
It shapes up to be a classic on NFL Network's Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET). Let's take a look at a few key questions heading into the game:
1. Will Alex Smith bounce back?
Smith has performed well throughout the Jim Harbaugh era, but his disappointing play against the New York Giants has led to questions about his ability to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Although he has compiled a 17-7 record and completed over 63 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns and only nine interceptions since the beginning of the 2011 season, Smith is coming off a poor performance (19-of-30 for 200 yards with three interceptions) that exposed his flaws and shortcomings as a passer. Against a Seahawks defense that routinely destroys the timing and rhythm of the passing game with its collective physicality and brute strength, Smith must string together a handful of completions early to alleviate the pressure on the perimeter. Most importantly, he must avoid turning the ball over to an emerging Seattle offense. Given the success of the Patriots working the middle of the field against the Seahawks, I fully expect Smith to target Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker early and often to establish a rhythm to the offense. If Smith can connect on nearly 65 percent of his passes and average nearly 7.5 yards per attempt without any turnovers, I believe the 49ers should be in the driver's seat at the end of the game.
2. How will Russell Wilson attack the 49ers?
Carroll unleashed his rookie starter against the New England Patriots last week, and he responded with the best game of his young career. Wilson passed for 293 yards and three touchdowns, displaying the big-play ability the Seahawks' coveted when selecting the former N.C. State/Wisconsin star in the draft.
However, Wilson will have limited opportunities to throw the ball down the field Thursday night against a defensive line that features a pair of stud rushers in Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Both attack off the edges with speed, quickness and explosion, and their ability to collapse the pocket from the perimeter alters the timing of the passing game. To combat these tactics, Wilson needs to identify the hot receiver against any five- or six-man pressures, and focus on getting the ball out of his hands when the pocket starts to leak. He must avoid sacks at all costs to keep the Seahawks from encountering long-yardage situations and consequently facing the 49ers' exotic-blitz schemes. If Wilson finishes the night without hitting the turf due to a big hit in the pocket, he could help the Seahawks steal a tough win on the road.
3. Can the 49ers block Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin off the edges?
The Seahawks have an emerging defensive front that should be considered among the best in the NFL. The unit has collected 17 sacks in six games, and routinely pulverizes opponents in the pocket behind the ultra-explosive tandem of Clemons and Irvin off the edge. With both players showing the ability to dominate one-on-one matchups on the perimeter, the 49ers will need to tweak their protection scheme to keep the Seahawks' top rushers from crashing aggressively around the corner. To neutralize the duo, the 49ers likely will use more of their two- and three-tight end packages to eliminate the short corners for Clemons and Irvin. That will force the Seahawks' edge rushers to align wider, buying more time for Smith in the pocket. In addition, it increases the effectiveness of play-action, which slows down the rush with the threat of an inside or outside run. If the 49ers are able to neutralize the impact of Clemons and Irvin early in the game, it should allow Smith to have enough time to find his receivers over the middle of the field.
4. Will Marshawn Lynch top the 100-yard mark?
The 49ers remain one of the most feared defensive units in the NFL, but teams have recently enjoyed success running the football right up the middle. The Giants, in particular, relied on a power-based running game to grind out three- and four-yard gains consistently against the 49ers. While the methodical approach takes patience and persistence, the fact that Ahmad Bradshaw found creases in the middle of the 49ers' defense a week ago will tempt Carroll to try the tactic. Lynch possesses the size, strength and physicality to pound the ball relentlessly between the tackles. If Lynch can get near the 100-yard mark on 20 to 25 carries, the Seahawks will control the tempo and wear down San Francisco in the late stages of a very competitive affair.
The battle for supremacy in the NFC West will create a playoff-like atmosphere in Candlestick Park that should be a treat to watch for fans of old-school football. While both teams bring outstanding defenses to the table, the 49ers have a few more weapons on offense, giving them a slight edge in my mind. With David Akers familiar with the muddy terrain and windy conditions, I believe the 49ers will take this one with a long-range field goal as time expires.
San Francisco 17, Seattle 14
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.