RENTON — Who could have imagined a week ago all that would happen to change the flavor of this game? The crazy 49ers comeback against the Rams and the stunning Seattle loss to Arizona (as well as a few other games) shifted the stakes greatly.
While the 49ers need only to win to get the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Seattle’s hopes of getting a bye the first weekend will be done if the Packers beat Detroit in a 10 a.m. game.
But even in that scenario the Seahawks still have tons to play for — a home game the first weekend and avoiding potentially having to go back to San Francisco for the divisional round.
There’s also simply winning a division title and hanging another banner — the Seahawks haven’t had one since 2016.
And then there’s the return of Marshawn Lynch.
Get there early.
Here’s a look at what to watch.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
San Francisco tight end George Kittle vs. Seattle defense.
It’s not lessening Seattle’s win in the first meeting between the two teams to point out that Kittle didn’t play in that game — injuries are part of the deal. But it’s a definitive change in evaluating Sunday’s game to note that Kittle is now back and healthy and facing a Seattle defense that could be without its stabilizing force in the secondary — free safety Quandre Diggs, listed as questionable with a high ankle sprain..
Seattle coach Pete Carroll said on his radio show this week of Kittle that “I see him as their best player on a team that has a lot of really highlighted guys.’’
Kittle has 78 receptions, 19th in the league despite missing two games, and is sixth in yards after the catch with 551. It’s the latter stat that may be the most important for the Seahawks. They won’t stop Kittle from catching the ball but they need to keep the gains to a minimum.
COACHING DECISION TO WATCH
Which tailback to start?
Will Lynch prove ready to take the first snap of the game, and how many will the Seahawks count on him for?
Carroll was predictably vague on Friday about how the team might distribute carries while noting that rookie Travis Homer — who got all the snaps in the second half last week — is ready to go.
And maybe for maximum effect what makes sense is to bring in Lynch after a few plays have been run. As Carroll said Friday “you’re going to have to wait to find out.”
PLAYER TO WATCH
RB Marshawn Lynch.
From start to finish Lynch will be the most fascinating player to watch Sunday.
From a strictly playing standpoint, the key question is how much Lynch has left at age 33, having not played in roughly 14 months and jumping right in to a key game without even having had any contact practices. Carroll made an interesting comment this week when asked about the lack of football playing for Lynch this year and said it would be the recovery that would be the biggest issue — maybe hinting at not being too concerned about the workload Sunday.
“The day after — that’s the problem,’’ Carroll said. “It’s the day after you play and how you respond to the workload and the hitting and all of that. How you can recover is really the challenge. The first time out, it’s not as much of a challenge.’’
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney was a literal one-man-wrecking crew in the first game against the 49ers, looking every bit worth a contract making him the highest-paid player at his position in the NFL — which is what he is likely going to want this offseason. But he suffered a core muscle injury in that game and hasn’t been quite the same since.
In fact, he’s played just two games since then, against the Vikings and Rams. But Clowney said Thursday he will for sure play against the 49ers.
And with free agency looming, and in what will be the only game on in its time slot, likely commanding one of the bigger audiences of the NFL regular season, you imagine he’d like to give one more big performance. He has three sacks this season, which would be a career low other than his injury-shortened rookie season when he had none in four games.
WILD-CARD PLAYER WHO COULD SURPRISE
WR DK Metcalf.
OK, so Metcalf is hardly an off-the-beaten-path name.
But if there’s an offensive player the Seahawks really need to get something out of Sunday it may be Metcalf, who has finally hit something of a rookie slump, with just two catches in the past two games for 36 yards, none last week on just one target (which he dropped) in the stunning loss to Arizona. Metcalf was followed most of the game last week by perennial All-Pro Patrick Peterson. The 49ers obviously have Richard Sherman but San Francisco typically leaves him on the left side. The 49ers will have Ahkello Witherspoon back for this game on the right side, though some think his backup, Emmauel Moseley, has actually played better. Regardless of who is on him, the Seahawks need Metcalf to make something happen.
That’s Russell Wilson’s rushing yards in the first game against the 49ers, a season high. Eighteen came on a third-and-three scramble that set up the winning field goal. Both were indicative of the fact that a 49ers defense that has allowed the second-fewest yards in the NFL this season has proved vulnerable at times to running quarterbacks. The four highest rushing totals allowed by the 49ers this year came in games against Arizona and Kyler Murray (who had 101 yards in two games vs. SF), Baltimore and Lamar Jackson, and the Seahawks, whose 147 rushing yards in the first game were the third most against the 49ers this season. It’s hard to know what the Seahawks are going to get out of the tailback trio of Lynch, Robert Turbin — neither of whom has played in a game all season — and Homer. So the thought here is Wilson may have to run more than he has all season for Seattle to win.
THE FINAL WORD
49ers 24, Seahawks 17.
Sorry for the rain-on-the-parade pick here. But on paper the 49ers are the better team. Seattle won the first game when it was healthier and the 49ers had some injury concerns, such as Kittle being out and Emmanuel Sanders leaving the game early. This time it’s the Seahawks who are banged up (the loss of Duane Brown could be really big in this one and there is probably no Diggs) while the 49ers are healthy, coming off a big win and have everything to play for that Seattle does. The Lynch-fueled emotion may not be enough.