At approximately 1:30 p.m. Sunday, the third wave of excitement, hype and hyperbole swept through the Northwest and Northern California.
This upcoming National Football Conference championship game between NFC West rivals Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers can be called “The Rubber Match To End All.” In the NFL offices in New York, this game will be one-half of “the best NFL championship weekend ever.”
To Seattle Seahawks fans, this is the biggest postseason game in their Seahawk fandom, including Super Bowl XL in 2006. To San Francisco 49ers fans, they’ve been here before — 14 times since 1970 before Sunday’s game and their third straight berth in three seasons.
Call it what you like, this is the game everyone has been looking forward to all season.
On Saturday, top-seeded Seattle stayed home in the rain to take on New Orleans, the No. 6 seed and a recent visitor to the Northwest on Monday Night Football. The Seahawks survived a very late flurry by the Saints in a 23-15 win.
The Seahawks’ offense was marked by three events — Percy Harvin’s return, Marshawn Lynch’s continued dominance over the Saints and Russell Wilson’s worst statistical performance in his two-year career. The Seattle defense, however, had one gaping hole in what would be considered a banner day of suffocating Drew Brees and the Saints.
First, let’s look at Lynch, the seven-year pro who came to Seattle to play in a game as important as Sunday’s. His 140-yard, two-touchdown day was filled with power runs, dancing and fun. The clinching touchdown was a Bay Area tough-man gallop, started by a great offensive line seal off at the point-of-attack, open field to run in and a stiff arm that shoved New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis out of the way for a 31-yard scoring play with 2:40 left to play.
“That’s just a part of the game, sweetheart,” Lynch, who reset a franchise postseason single-game record for rushing yards, said. “I don’t run to get tackled. We did a great job. It means we get another opportunity to play another game. I just stayed with what the team called. I believe in my team.”
Harvin was missing from the second half, because he suffered two big hits from the Saints’ secondary — the first came three plays into Seattle’s first drive of the game and the second came on a diving miss in the end zone less than 2 minutes left in the first half. Harvin did finish with a team-high three catches for 21 yards before exiting amid NFL concussion protocol procedures.
Harvin’s status, which had been a weekly soap opera at Seahawks headquarters weeks before, vs. San Francisco is unknown.
Wilson ran, scrambled, escaped and made plays that looked like he was controlled by a 17-year-old gamer with a Sony PlayStation 4 controller in the stands against the New Orleans defense. However, his 103 yards on 9-of-18 passing is a career low overall. He did do a good job of dealing with the rainy conditions, hitting 6-of-8 attempts downfield, but found barely enough success against an above-average Saints secondary.
The defense can put Saturday’s game on a mantle and show it off to relatives in the offseason. Brees may have thrown for more than 300 yards, but his offense was one-dimensional after New Orleans got desperate in the second half. Rookie running back Khiry Robinson and former Alabama rushing star Mark Ingram gashed the Seahawks’ defense with 78 rushing yards in the first half. The duo finished with 106 yards overall.
Also, the defense benefited from some strange play-calling from Saints coaches. After Brees hit Robert Meacham for a 52-yard pass play that resembled the double-deflection pass in the Auburn-Georgia game in November, New Orleans called three straight screen passes that fell incomplete and kicker Shayne Graham missed the second into-the-wind field-goal attempt with 3:56 left in the game.
That drive, with a then-precarious 16-8 lead for Seattle, preceded Lynch’s game-clinching score.
It wasn’t Seattle’s best game, but it was plenty enough to get the job done. That leads it to next Sunday and a date with San Francisco.
In Carolina, San Francisco trailed 10-6 late in the second quarter before the Niners orchetrated a first-half ending touchdown drive — complete with tight end Vernon Davis dragging a foot to stay inbounds and head coach Jim Harbaugh nearly at mid-field to watch the play — for a 13-10 halftime score.
The Niners, behind veteran running back Frank Gore, bulldozed the Panthers’ defense down the field in their first second-half drive, an eight-play, 77-yard march. A 45-yard pass play from Colin Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin set up Kaepernick’s 4-yard touchdown run and a 20-10 lead.
The drive was San Francisco’s only third-quarter possession, but it was enough to hold down an emotional and undisciplined Carolina squad that fell out of its own game by its own actions. Ask New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham about holding emotions in check in the postseason and you’ll see why both San Francisco and Seattle chirped, but never cross the line emotionally this weekend.
San Francisco will enter Sunday’s game in Seattle on a nine-game winning streak. It is playing its best football at the right time of the year. Seattle may have struggled a bit over the last couple of weeks, but it owns the best record in the NFL for a reason.
Both offenses know what they’re going to get from the other team’s defenses. Both teams are engineered to take on each other and meet in Sunday’s game for the right to go to the Super Bowl in New Jersey. Both fan bases have been looking forward to — and dreading — this matchup all season.
It is exactly what everyone wanted to happen, regardless of how the two teams got there — San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, CenturyLink Field, NFC Championship Game, 3:30 p.m., winner goes to Super Bowl XLVIII, loser goes home.
Let the week of hype, hyperbole and hysteria begin.
Rob Burns is a Daily World sports writer. He can be reached at (360) 537-3926 and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter: @RobRVR.