At last, the NFL's final four teams have emerged, and a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII is on the line. Let's take a closer look at both of Sunday's conference title games.
The 49ers have the NFL's longest active winning streak at eight games. They arguably are the NFL's most complete team, with the most victories and the stingiest defense since Week 4. The offense has hit its stride over the last five games, scoring at least 23 points each week and turning the ball over just one time. Jim Harbaugh's squad is also the best road team in the league (8-2 combined regular-season and playoff record).
The Seahawks counteract the 49ers' road prowess with the best home-field advantage in football. They are 16-1 with a league-leading plus-26 turnover differential and an average score of 29-13 in Seattle since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012. In contrast to his conference championship opponent, Pete Carroll's club peaked around Thanksgiving and has been misfiring on offense since.
Since Colin Kaepernick entered the starting lineup in the middle of the 2012 season, these teams have met three times. The home team has won each time. The Seahawks hold a commanding 88-35 edge in points.
Coming off one of the most impressive performances of his career in a dismantling of Rob Ryan's Saints defense in Week 13, Wilson emerged as Peyton Manning's toughest MVP competition in early December. It's been all downhill since then.
Wilson's aerial attack unmistakably is ailing. He hasn't thrown multiple touchdown passes in one game since that first Saints blowout. Over that span, his passer rating is 31.1 points lower and he's averaging 65.1 fewer yards per game. Meanwhile, the offense is averaging 8.3 fewer points per game and nearly 100 fewer net yards per contest.
With Percy Harvin (concussion) ruled out, Golden Tate coming off his least effective game of the season and the offensive line continuing to struggle in protection, there's little reason to believe Wilson will recapture midseason form against the NFL's best defense over the past three months.
Matchup to watch
Kaepernick has turned his season around since Michael Crabtree's return, recording eight consecutive wins while posting a 100.0 passer rating and an impressive 12:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He's an even bigger threat to run in the postseason. While his numbers have improved significantly as the season has progressed, Kaepernick remains a developing field reader, often failing to recognize open receivers.
Kaepernick's struggles to get past his first couple of progressions bodes poorly in a matchup against a historically great Seahawks secondary. In addition to leading the league in total defense and turnovers, Dan Quinn's defense is just the fourth in NFL history to rank No. 1 in both interceptions and pass yards allowed. The other three wound up in the Super Bowl.
Seattle's Richard Sherman (47.3) and Byron Maxwell (47.8) were first and second among all cornerbacks in opposing passer rating this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Sherman's 57 passes defensed since 2011 lead the league even though quarterbacks have avoided him more than any other player at his position. Fellow Defensive Player of the Year candidate Earl Thomas' freakish range functions as a one-man safety net, allowing strong safety Kam Chancellor to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Kaepernick has started 28 NFL games. He's thrown over one-third of his career interceptions (14) in three of those games versus the Seahawks. Advantage: Seattle.
Kaepernick's three postseason victories on the road (3-0) are more than Joe Montana (1-3) and Steve Young (0-3) managed combined. ... Patrick Willis is one of just 15 players in NFL history make the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven seasons. ... Aldon Smith is the NFL's career leader for most sacks per game (0.98). ... Since 2009, only six players have a higher drop rate than "best catcher ever" Michael Crabtree's 5.86 percentage. On the flip side, the 49ers are 7-0 with Crabtree in the lineup this season. ... Since 2009, Calvin Johnson (52) is the only player with more combined regular-season and postseason touchdown catches than Vernon Davis (51). ... Since 2009, Anquan Boldin ranks first in postseason receptions (49) and receiving yards (790). His his six touchdowns are second only to Davis' seven. ... Harbaugh needs one more playoff victory to tie Washington Redskins legend Joe Gibbs for most in NFL history (six) through three seasons as an NFL head coach.
Marshawn Lynch has averaged 23 rushes for 98 yards (4.3 YPC) in his last five games versus the 49ers. He boasts four of the top six rushing performances against the 49ers since Harbaugh became head coach. ... Russell Wilson is the only player in NFL history with a 100.0-plus passer rating in each of his first two seasons. ... Seattle is 4-1 against NFC playoff teams this year, outscoring those opponents 115-51. ... Kaepernick's 2013 passer rating was 91.6, but just 41.7 versus the Seahawks.
These two NFC West superpowers have been mirror images of each other since Harbaugh began roaming the sideline opposite Carroll. This game matches the only two teams in the NFL that rushed the ball on over 50.0 percent of their offensive plays this season. Both teams boast hard-hitting, swarming defenses complemented by ball-control offenses. Recent matchup history suggests the Seahawks have the 49ers' number. Momentum suggests the 49ers are the slightly better team. In a tight game, I believe the difference could come down to Seattle's penchant for forcing game-changing turnovers at a raucous CenturyLink Field.