Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson have been asked to define their offenses this year, with varying results. (John Froschauer/AP)
RENTON, Wash. -- The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will be looking for different things when Pete Carroll's team heads down to the Bay Area this weekend for a Sunday rematch of one of the NFL's most compelling rivalries with Jim Harbaugh's bunch. The 11-1 Seahawks would put a bow on the NFC West with a win and come one step closer to home-field advantage for the playoffs -- a prospect that no potential postseason opponent wants. The 49ers would gain a measure of revenge and recompense after Seattle thrashed them 29-3 in Week 2 at CenturyLink Field, and a win would further establish them as one of the teams opponents don't want to face anywhere. They've come much closer to that with their current 8-4 record after a five-game winning streak glossed over a rocky start.
There's the additional factor of similarity -- both teams are built on outstanding defense, a power running game, and the efforts of second-year starting quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. These are two franchises too similar to have regard for each other, though there is an obvious respect on both sides. Carroll and Harbaugh are two coaches who have bucked the recent trend of NFL failure among college coaches, and their beef goes back to the days of the PAC-10, when Carroll was at USC and Harbaugh was at Stanford. It seems that these two teams and their coaches are destined to compete against each other in smashmouth fashion.
As 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said Wednesday, "It might be the most intense game this season, because those guys don't like us, and we don't like them."
As Wilson and Kaepernick grew into their current roles as leaders and definers, the two teams bullied back and forth with old-school football, but each team has expanded their playbooks to take better advantage of their qarterbacks' special and unique skills. As Kaepernick showed during San Francisco's road to a near-Super Bowl win last season, he's got every possible tool any quarterback could ever want. At his best, he seems like an evolutionary version of Randall Cunningham -- an impossibly lean and dangerous runner who can also throw the ball half the field on a rope with accuracy.
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Wilson's physical tools are somewhat less apparent -- he was taken 75th overall in the 2012 draft due to height issues -- but he's put things together freakishly well from a mental and schematic perspective. As Carroll told me, he's not surprised by anything Wilson does anymore; he just waits for the next great play to come along. There were enough of those great plays in Monday's 34-7 win over the New Orleans Saints to make Wilson the NFC's reigning Offensive Player of the Week.
Fast forward to the now for the other side. Kaepernick has struggled on the field at times, but statistics seem to underscore that perhaps too much has been made of that -- he hasn't had a month this season with a passer rating lower than 81.0, and that was in September. In November and December, he's completed 62 passes in 105 attempts for 728 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. That's despite a depleted receiver corps and an underperforming offensive line that has helped Kaepernick to 15 sacks in that time period. He's got Michael Crabtree back on the field, and it was with Crabtree that Kaepernick developed a highly productive chemistry last season.
One thing's for sure -- Carroll knows what Kaepernick's capable of, and he's expecting the version that has thrown four touchdown passes and no picks in his last two games.
"He’s shown a tremendous range of ability. He can run it like crazy -- he’s a big, strong, fast guy that can run and get out and strike you dead. He’s got a big arm. They like to use it and work the down-the-field stuff and they mix their quick game in and their little control stuff too. So that gives you a variety of things that they do off of their run game, which is very similar … we’re not similar at all in the way we do things, but in the overall ‘run the football until the play passes’ is similar and he’s really good at it.
"When they focus on getting the ball to Vernon [Davis], he’s averaging almost 17 yards a catch, he’s got 10 touchdowns out of his 40-something catches. That’s a big-play guy, and he knows how to get the ball to him, and their system allows for that. When they're mixing their throwing game with their running game, it’s a very difficult offense to deal with and that’s kind of where they’re at right now. We've got our hands full.”
Wilson has managed to make himself a dark-horse NFL MVP candidate. The Seahawks have lost just two games in the last calendar year, and since Week 9 of the 2012 season (when the Seahawks really opened up the playbook for him), Wilson has the league's best passer rating (112.9, with Peyton Manning second at 110.9), and his totals over the last 20 games are among the best you'll ever see for any second-year quarterback not named Dan Marino -- 321 completions in 488 attempts for 4,324 yards, 38 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
Similarly, Harbaugh knows what his defense will face with Wilson on the field.
“He’s a fantastic player. A wonderful, wonderful player, competitor. Skills of arm talent, mobility. Great field awareness. Understands the scrambling lanes, the escape routes out of the pocket. And then, that feel that only so many quarterbacks have had that have ever really played the game to extend plays. So, a lot of great qualities. A lot of wonderful qualities about him.”
Defenders are watching those "wonderful qualities" with suspicious eyes on both sides. As Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said, much of what makes Kaepernick dangerous is what he's able to do out of San Francisco's multiple and diverse run packages -- power concepts that can develop into all kinds of things after the snap.
"They have so many different personnel [packages] they do. Sometimes, they give us a big personnel look and throw seam routes out of it. As the free safety, my first responsibility is to stop the seams and eliminate the posts. But it can be tricky when you're keyed in for the run, and they try to hit you with a seam route out of those bit formations. You've definitely got to be keyed into the little details."
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The little details have defined Wilson, to be sure. Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin caught passes from Andrew Luck at Stanford and catches them from Wilson now, and he found it easy to compare the two quarterbacks from the 2012 draft who have set themselves apart most consistently -- especially above the neck.
"He's got the offense under his belt now," Baldwin said of Wilson. "He's got complete confidence and control -- he knows the ins and outs of the intricacies of the offense. It's just a growth there -- it's not so much that he's doing anything different, because he was phenomenal last year. He needed to get the full depth and breadth of the offense under his belt, and that's what he's capable of doing now.
"The way that Russell prepares for the game all week, it's very reminiscent of what I saw Luck do when we were at Stanford. Just his ability to dissect defenses speaks to his confidence in his preparation, and it's second to none. And Russell might do it better. It's unbelievable the way that guy prepares. It gives us a lot of confidence, because when we go into games, he's confident, and that's because of the preparation he puts in. They're both elite when it comes to that."
Sunday's Seahawks-49ers game will be an elite matchup in all kinds of ways, but more than ever, the quarterbacks will determine how things go.