Despite a chaotic finish to the regular season, including a late run by the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers and the ascension of the Panthers, the cream still rose to the top in the NFC Championship game.
The Niners and Seahawks have been the two best teams in the conference since Week 4, when San Francisco got hot and reeled off five straight wins. Seattle, of course, has been atop everyone’s power rankings all season and finished with the best record in the NFL — a 13-3 mark equal to the Broncos in the AFC.
We take a look at the top three storylines to watch for in Sunday’s NFC Championship (6:30 p.m., FOX):
1. Going mobile
Maybe the two most exciting quarterbacks in the league, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, take center stage in this game. And neither was expected to be a star at the professional level. The undersized Wilson wasn’t drafted until the third round in 2012, while Kaepernick was taken one year earlier in the second round. But they now present the most dangerous combination of athleticism and throwing ability in the NFL. Both were in the middle of the pack with 210 passing yards per game for Wilson and 200 per game for Kaepernick. But Wilson (539 yards per game) and Kaepernick (524 yards per game) finished second and third respectively in rushing yards for quarterbacks, behind only Cam Newton. Both defenses will need to watch out for the read-option attack, but also guard against old-fashioned QB scrambles. Kaepernick had a huge third-down scramble against the Packers to set up the game-winning field goal two weeks ago. We’ll see if either team puts a spy on the opposing quarterback, which could open up passing yards downfield.
2. Stopping the Beast
Kaepernick and Wilson may be the bold-faced names in every ad for the game, but the best player might be Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch. The man known as “Beast Mode” drives the Seattle offense, and will do so even harder if Seattle receiver Percy Harvin (concussion) is out as expected. The 49ers are fourth in the NFL, allowing just 95.9 rushing yards per game, thanks to a tenacious defense led by Pro Bowl linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks, who came up with a huge stuff at the goal line on fourth down against Newton last week. The Niners will need all defensive hands on deck to stop Lynch, who finished with 1,257 rushing yards and a career-high tying 12 touchdowns. The Seahawks finished fourth in the NFL in rushing.
3. Something to talk about
The Seahawks are in a similar position, trying to stop longtime stud running back Frank Gore. Because you can bet the Seahawks would like nothing more than to shut down the ground game and force Kaepernick to throw the ball on the best secondary in the league. By all statistical measures the Seattle secondary is tops in the NFL — including trash talk. All Pro cornerback Richard Sherman leads the league in talk, but he also leads in interceptions, so don’t think he can’t back it up. The 49ers have two talented receivers in Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, but Seattle allows an absurdly low 172 passing yards per game. Even a future Hall of Famer like Drew Brees threw for just 456 yards combined in two games against the Seahawks this season. It goes without saying Kaepernick is nowhere near the passer Brees is.
Follow Metro New York Sports Editor Mark Osborne on Twitter @MetroNYSports.