Art of the win: 49ers, Seahawks have taken divergent paths toward NFC West showdown

ByNick Wagoner and Brady Henderson ESPN logo
Friday, December 27, 2019

It's a showdown that has felt inevitable since about halfway through the season. Short of a win-or-go-home postseason game, the stakes don't get much bigger than what is set to take place Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

There, the San Francisco 49ers (12-3) and the Seattle Seahawks (11-4) will square off for the NFC West division crown and, potentially, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

It's too soon to say the Niners-Seahawks rivalry is back to where it was from 2011 to 2014, but games like this can help provide the spark that brings it back to prominence. According to ESPN Sports & Information research, a win by the Seahawks in Week 17 would give the NFC West a pair of 12-win teams. It would be just the second time an NFC division had multiple 12-win teams under the current version of divisions that started in 2002. The other instance came in 2013, when the NFC West had the 13-3 Seahawks and 12-4 49ers.

If Sunday's meeting is anything like the 27-24 overtime thriller the Seahawks pulled off on Nov. 11, we'll be well on our way.

Here's a closer look at how these similar teams have mastered the art of winning at the league's highest level in 2019 while traversing vastly different paths to get there:

San Francisco 49ers

Growing up in a football family, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan learned many important lessons about what it takes to build a championship team from his father, Mike Shanahan. When Kyle wasn't attempting to dress like Deion Sanders on the field, he was concocting ways to stay up past his bedtime and watch the NFL's greatest moments.

Of the many things Shanahan carries with him from watching some of the league's greatest teams was their ability to find a way to win no matter the circumstance.

"I think it's just so important in the NFL, just the way our sport is," Shanahan said. "I think that's what makes the NFL different than all other sports is it's not a seven-game series. I think it's very hard in a seven-game series for the best team not to always win, it just usually happens unless there's injuries in that seven-game series. But, when it's one game, it doesn't matter at all who the better team is. It just matters who's the better team for 3 hours.

"There are so many different things that happen in a game that even if you're the best team and you just expect to beat everyone with ease, you're going to see that that doesn't happen. And when it doesn't, you can't be shocked, because you only get one chance, so you've got to be able to win it any way."

After two years of heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss, the 49ers have become one of the league's biggest surprises this season, not only for the major turnaround that is reflected in their record, but in how they've gone about it.

The same 49ers who lost 11 games by eight points or fewer in the past two seasons now find themselves winning games in nearly every manner imaginable. Through 15 games, the Niners have a plus-164-point differential, which ranks third in the league. But by no means have they won every game in dominant fashion.

There have been blowouts against clearly inferior opponents such as the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers, not to mention a destruction of another top NFC contender in the Green Bay Packers.

The Niners have won a defensive slugfest against the Los Angeles Rams, overcome five turnovers to pull out a last-second win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, won on short weeks against the Arizona Cardinals and the Rams again and outgunned the New Orleans Saints in the most entertaining shootout of the season. They've even showed they can win when weather works against them, beating the Washington Redskins in a torrential downpour played in the FedEx Field mud pit.

When the offense has struggled, the defense has often been there to pick it up. And as the defense has stumbled toward the end of the season, the offense has usually picked up the slack.

It's the mark of a legitimate contender, the ability to have each other's backs, never point fingers and find a way to deliver when it matters most.

"You never know what you're going to get in the postseason," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "You don't want that to be a new experience. You don't want adversity and chaos to be something that's foreign to you come playoff time. Because in the playoffs, there's going to be adversity, there's going to be circumstances that you can't control, and you have to be prepared for that, the team has to be mentally prepared to overcome that adversity. And I think we are, because we experienced most scenarios."

Sunday's visit to Seattle brings a new scenario given what's on the line. It isn't a playoff game, but it's as close as you can get with all that's on the line. A win and the Niners will be NFC West division champions and claim the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. A loss would drop San Francisco to the No. 5 seed and send them on the road to face the NFC East champion in a wild-card game.

The question now becomes what all of the paths the Niners have taken to get to this point will do for them in their biggest game of the season.

Seattle Seahawks

Bobby Wagner has a practical reason for enjoying narrow victories over lopsided ones.

"If you blow a team out, you have to sit on the sideline," the Seahawks' All-Pro middle linebacker said. "That's not fun. When it comes down to the last second, it's fun."

It was actually a sprained ankle and not a comfortable lead that forced Wagner to the sideline for the final seven minutes of Seattle's Week 15 game at Carolina. From there, he watched his teammates do what they've done a record number of times this season.

The Seahawks' 30-24 win over the Panthers was their 10th win by eight points or fewer. That tied the 1978 Houston Oilers for the most one-score wins in a season, according to Elias Sports Bureau data. Their only victory by more than one score was against the Cardinals in Week 4. In all, 11 of Seattle's 15 games have been decided by one score. The NFL record since at least 1940 is 14.

Pete Carroll pointed to his captains on either side of the ball -- Russell Wilson and Wagner, each in their eighth season -- as reasons the Seahawks have been on the winning end of so many of those nail-biters.

"I think we're a poised team," Carroll said. "I think it comes right from Russell and Bobby. I think those guys on the field make other guys stay within themselves and not get scattered and continue to help us execute. ... The leadership that those guys offer, I would go right to that. We're never out of anything. We don't ever feel like that. To be like that and extend that message, you have to come across with poise or guys aren't going to listen to you and it's not going to have the effect."

Of Wilson's 32 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime (regular season and playoffs), five have come this season. And while some of Seattle's close wins have come down to one score in part because of the defense faltering near the end, that group has closed out four of those games with two takeaways, a turnover on downs and a three-and-out on the opposing offense's final possession.

"There are a lot of young guys that haven't been in situations, so their brain is kind of going crazy," Wagner said. "They're thinking like these last few minutes have to be different than what the rest of the game was. These plays are a little bit more significant. But they're still the same plays that we were seeing. They're not going to change their whole offense for the last two minutes of the game. It's just kind of getting everybody to relax and recognize the formation and make your plays when they come to you. I think everybody just needs reminders. That's what I feel like me and Russell are."

Thanks to all those close wins, the Seahawks have just a plus-12 point differential through 15 games. That ranks 15th in the NFL and is 219 points below Baltimore's league-best plus-231 differential. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the lowest point differential for a team that won 12 or more games in the Super Bowl era -- the Seahawks would finish 12-4 with a win over San Francisco -- is plus-31 (see chart).

One could view that as a sign the Seahawks have been punching above their weight and suspect that their success in close games can't be sustained once the playoffs come and the opponents get tougher.

They see it differently.

"I love close games," Carroll said. "I think they help you. They make you stronger. They keep you in the game longer. They make you have to focus farther, and it prepares you for more kinds of things that can happen that you need background and experience in. ... I think it's only going to help us. I think all of the young guys that have been through those games, they're not tensing up. They're not worried about what's going to happen next. Just keep thinking we're going to find a way. That's powerful.

" ... I'm sorry for the fans. Like I've said before, you've got to suck it up and enjoy the wins. Sometimes, they just come out later than you want."

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