Maybe there was no other way for this Seahawks regular season to end — with a game against the San Francisco 49ers in Glendale, Arizona.
“Yeah, everything’s strange,” coach Pete Carroll said this week when asked if it would be strange to play a neutral-site game. “It doesn’t really matter where we play these games because there’s nobody there. … But, yeah, it’s just been another unusual issue. … We’re playing in somebody else’s stadium, so that’s how it goes.”
The game was moved due to COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County.
It’s a potentially big game for the Seahawks. With a win and losses by Green Bay at Chicago and New Orleans at Carolina, they would claim the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC and a first-round bye.
If Seattle wins and either Green Bay or New Orleans loses, the Seahawks are the No. 2 seed, which this year does not come with a bye. A loss, or a win and wins by Green Bay and the Saints give Seattle the No. 3 seed.
On to some keys to Sunday’s game:
Matchup to watch
DK Metcalf vs. the 49ers secondary
Metcalf needs just 6 yards to break Steve Largent’s Seahawks season record of 1,287, set in 1985. If history is any indication Metcalf will do so easily against the 49ers. The last time he faced San Francisco he had career highs with 12 receptions and 161 yards (he later had 177 against the Eagles). In three career games against the 49ers, Metcalf has 24 receptions for 312 yards and three touchdowns, with at least six catches in each game.
San Francisco will not have former Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman for this game — he is out because of a calf injury and has played just five games this season. But San Francisco does have two corners rated among the top 10 in the NFL this year by Pro Football Focus — Jason Verrett (seventh) and Ahkello Witherspoon (10th).
Player to watch
Linebacker Jordyn Brooks
Seattle’s first-round draft pick is coming off one of his best games, with eight tackles in just 28 snaps during last Sunday’s 20-9 win over the Rams, and a run-defense grade of 80.3 from Pro Football Focus that is by far his highest of the season. Brooks didn’t play more was because Seattle was in nickel or dime formations for 47 of 75 snaps as a way to combat the Rams’ three-receiver sets. But as defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. noted, the 49ers use more run-based offensive formations (notably with fullback Kyle Juszczyk), which means Brooks should play more Sunday. As PFF noted, the 49ers called runs on 54% of their plays last week against Arizona and were in 21 personnel (two backs, two receivers, one tight end) on 45% of the snaps. Assessing his play against the Rams, PFF wrote: “This week, Brooks looked like he belonged right alongside Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright in Seattle’s linebacker corps.”
Coaching decision to watch
Will the Seahawks pull their starters if the top seed is gone?
As noted, Seattle needs the Saints and Packers to lose for a chance at the NFC’s top playoff seed. All three teams play their games at 1:25 p.m. The difference in the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds is far more negligible. But you never know how things will unfold, and potentially not having to go to Green Bay or New Orleans could be motivation enough to play the starters if just one of the two is losing. Carroll vowed this week that the Seahawks will play to win Sunday and hope other things work out. But if the Packers and Saints have big leads early Seattle could reverse course, as it did in 2016 when many starters were replaced in the fourth quarter once a shot at a top-two seed was gone.
As all fans know, the Seahawks have never been known for quick starts under Carroll. The 2013 team, which scored 417 points and almost 26 per game on its way to the Super Bowl title, scored just 69 in the first quarter (4.4 per game), 21st in the NFL. This year’s team was breaking that trend — through the first seven games of the season Seattle had 56 points in the first quarter, eight per game, to rank first in the NFL. In eight games since then Seattle has scored 27 points in the first quarter — with just one first-quarter touchdown in the past five games — and has fallen to 5.5 for the season, 12th in the NFL. Scoring more by the end of the game is obviously all that matters. But in both playoff losses the past two years, the Seahawks struggled early before getting the offense going late. And they might want to reverse that trend before entering the postseason.
Player who could surprise
Running back Rashaad Penny
Penny has not done much in his return from a knee injury, with 15 yards on five carries on 10 snaps in two games. He also hasn’t been needed much, with Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde playing well. But, that will change Sunday with Hyde having been declared out due to an illness, making Penny the backup to Carson (Seattle on Saturday also elevated Alex Collins from the practice squad). Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said earlier this week he felt Penny was due to a breakout game soon. That could be Sunday, which would also get Penny in that much better of a position to contribute in the playoffs.
For all the crazy turns this season has taken, it can still go down as tied for the third-best in team history — in terms of the regular season, anyway — with a win Sunday.
Seattle has won 13 games just twice — the Super Bowl years of 2005 and 2013. Seattle has finished with 12 wins two times — 1984 and 2014.
In three of those four years the Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl (in 1984 Seattle lost a divisional playoff game at Miami).
One more thing to consider — a win would give Seattle 98 in the regular season since Russell Wilson became quarterback in 2012, an average of 10.8 per season.
The final word
Seahawks 24, 49ers 13
The 49ers are beat up and ending a disappointing post-Super Bowl season. Seattle still has a big potential carrot to pursue — the NFC’s top playoff seed, even though the chances of claiming it are not great. But as the 49ers showed last week in a surprising win over Arizona, they are still dangerous. However, Seattle should be able to force C.J. Beathard into more mistakes than Arizona could, and that should open the door to a Seahawks win.