After Sunday’s matchup against Baltimore brought back bitter memories of a sunken Super Bowl berth, the San Francisco 49ers will continue their trip down nightmare lane against the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday night.
Seattle has haunted the team even more than the Ravens could ever have hoped to. It was the Seahawks who emerged as the 49ers bitter rivals in the NFC West, seemingly mimicking the San Francisco strategy of power running and stout defense.
It was the Seahawks who knocked the 49ers out of the 2013 playoffs in heartbreaking fashion while leaving a lasting physical mark on their last remaining Jim Harbaugh-era defensive star, NaVorro Bowman.
And, perhaps most important of all, it was the Seahawks’ victory on Thanksgiving last year that prompted Jed York to post an apology to fans on Twitter, effectively signaling the end of Harbaugh’s reign.
Not like you needed any more reasons to tune into this rivalry, but for those looking to find a scapegoat — aside from Jed York — for recent 49ers’ struggles need look no further than Seattle.
But the two teams that clash Thursday for just the second time at Levi’s Stadium are merely memories of the NFC powerhouses of yesteryear.
Just one season removed from being truly feared defenses, San Francisco and Seattle have seen their units suffer at the hands of opposing offenses.
The Seahawks defense is still good enough to crack the Top 5 this season, but have suffered a pair of embarrassing fourth-quarter lapses against the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals to ride a two-game losing streak into Thursday.
Their so-called Legion of Boom, who ranked first in 2014 in pass defense, has seemingly returned to earth, ranking a respectable fifth in the NFL but showing that they can be beaten through the air, after Cam Newton and Andy Dalton led late-game comebacks through the air in consecutive weeks.
The 49ers have suffered even more, as an offseason exodus of key defensive players — paired with the addition of new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini — has left the formerly-formidable unit in shambles.
A combination of a lack of pass rush and a young secondary has led the 49ers to be burned through the air by elite receivers, causing their once prestigious unit to rank a grisly 31st overall in the NFL.
Thursday’s contest may lean in San Francisco’s favor, though, as the Seattle Seahawks have found themselves unable to move the ball through the air, almost as poorly as the 49ers. Add a hobbled Marshawn Lynch, fighting through a hamstring injury, and the San Francisco defense has their best shot to date at containing Seattle.
If the 49ers get burned through the air, it will most likely be at the hands of a newcomer to the rivalry, TE Jimmy Graham. Linebackers Michael Wilhoite and Bowman have not looked particularly spritely in coverage on the year, as opposing offenses have looked for the mismatch across the middle often.
Wilhoite was never one to be strong in coverage, but Bowman has looked just as exploitable. The All-Pro linebacker has flashed signs of his formidable self, but his mobility has looked dampened due to the knee injury suffered at the hands of these very same Seahawks in 2013.
With the big-bodied Graham added to the Seahawks receiving corps, the NFC rivals may look to exploit his size and athleticism against 49ers linebackers.
Both teams may be without the full strength of their power running game as well, with Lynch and 49ers RB Carlos Hyde riding nagging injuries into Thursday.
After sitting out two games with a hamstring injury, Lynch rebounded to handle 17 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown in last week’s loss against the Panthers. However, Beast Mode may still be hobbled after a short week heading into Thursday.
Hyde may be even worse for the wear, as a nagging foot injury nearly took the second-year back out of Sunday’s win against the Baltimore Ravens. While making a cut, Hyde went down in a heap after putting too much pressure on his injured foot.
The young running back downplayed the significance of the injury following Sunday’s win, but unless it improves, it could impede his ability to carve up the Seattle defense on Thursday.
Luckily for the 49ers, the aerial attack led by QB Colin Kaepernick has continued to look stronger after hitting rock-bottom in Week 4 against Green Bay. Kaepernick has responded well since, throwing for 602 yards and four touchdowns in his previous two games.
With Hyde hobbled, the 49ers best chance at winning may very well be in trusting Kaepernick to attack the Legion of Boom. (Just leave the fade passes in the end zone off the books, Geep Chryst.)
Thursday may be a match of NFC West bottom dwellers, but they’re still the Seattle Seahawks. And whether the teams are 2-4 or are fighting for the Super Bowl, Thursday night’s game is sure to be a heated and passionate chapter in the blossoming NFL rivalry.