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Four Downs: Gore, Thomas Linked by Long Run

Posted Jan 16, 2014

Who will be the key players on Sunday, and what is the most intriguing storyline? We provide two sets of answers.

Closing in on their NFC Championship game on Sunday in Seattle, the 49ers and Seahawks will be responding to questions all week.

Now it's our turn. 49ers.com senior reporter Taylor Price and contributor Andrew Pentis provide answers to four key queries about Sunday's game.

Voice your opinions in the comment section below.

First Down: No player is more key than...

Taylor: Colin Kaepernick. The pilot of the 49ers offense will have to fly through a bumpy environment and land his team into back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. There’s no getting around it. Kaepernick has never won in Seattle as a starter, but he’s also never lost on the road in the postseason as a starter. In the first two playoff games, a Wild Card road win in Green Bay and Divisional round win in Carolina, Kaepernick was masterful. He was better than that, he was a difference-maker, not a game manager. The latter phrase makes most quarterbacks shudder. Kaepernick will need to be conservative at times but aggressive when the opportunity presents itself. The 49ers quarterback has the arm talent and chemistry with his top targets to launch the ball anywhere on the field against the NFL’s No. 1 ranked pass defense. But if all passing outlets are covered, don’t be surprised if Kaepernick goes all out as a runner. This one is for a trip to the Super Bowl, so Kaepernick will have his competitive juices revved to the maximum.

Andrew: NaVorro Bowman. The inside linebacker has come up with big play after big play, particularly the last two months of the season, and the defense may need to force at least one turnover to come out on top. Remember it was Bowman's thud of a hit on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson that set the tone for the teams' last meeting. "If he wasn't ready, I think he got ready after that," Bowman would say later. As affective as the other member of the 49ers front seven are, Bowman is the most critical for a second reason. He's best equipped to cover Seattle's tight ends, namely Luke Willson and Zach Miller. These aren't the best playmakers in the Seahawks attack, but Willson scored a 39-yard touchdown in the previous matchup. Bowman can be his very valuable self by making sure this doesn't happen again.

Second Down: The most intriguing storyline is...

Andrew: Pains me to say it, but the crowd noise. Yes, this is also the most tired storyline of the week, but one would be a fool for thinking the vociferous fans at CenturyLink don't have an impact on games played there. They should be charged up even more for just the second conference title game they've hosted at their digs. There's a reason it's hard to play in Seattle – the 49ers haven't won there since 2011 – and it's not the cool air or moisture. If Kaepernick can't communicate in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, the offense will be saddled and the defense will be carrying too much of the burden to beat a great team at its place. Given the smarts of San Francisco's coaching staff, we almost expect they'll have a solution for this problem come Sunday.

Taylor: The 49ers wideouts versus the Seahawks defensive backs is the storyline that intrigues me most. It’s certainly not the crowd noise. The noise on the field between two physical receivers and two aggressive cornerbacks will be the worth recording. Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin have thrived in the face of physical cornerbacks. Simply put, it’s hard to jam the 49ers wideouts at the line of scrimmages. And when both receivers are at the top of their routes and the ball is on the way, they’ll still continue to fight for possession. Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell allowed the 49ers wideouts to catch a combined 10 passes for 133 yards in San Francisco’s Week 14 victory. When the team’s met in Week 2 in Seattle, Crabtree was still on the PUP List and Boldin was blanked in the primetime matchup. Come Sunday, old-school football on the perimeter will surely be played. The most physical duo, wideouts or corners, will have a big say in who wins the game.

Third Down: The 49ers will win if...

Taylor: They keep Marshawn Lynch under 80 rushing yards. It’s no secret that the former Cal running back is the bell cow of Seattle’s offense. Lynch carried the ball 28 times in Seattle’s playoff win over the New Orleans Saints and seemed to be more of a threat in the second half. With those 28 carries, Lynch punished the opponent to the tune of 140 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. With Lynch getting so many touches on offense, Wilson didn’t need to do too much as a passer. Wilson was 9-of-18 passing for 103 yards and posted a 67.6 passer rating. The 49ers would surely like to put this week’s game on the quarterback’s shoulders. Wilson has thrown for less than 207 yards in his last five games. If Lynch is able to move the chains on his own, Wilson won’t have to be a difference-maker in this game.

Andrew: They score touchdowns in the red zone. It's that simple. The last time these two teams faced off, San Francisco escaped 19-17 on four Phil Dawson field goals. That's not a recipe for sustained success. And, sure, it's nice to have a near-automatic kicker like Dawson, who has converted all six of his three-point tries this postseason, but the 49ers can't afford to settle. They also can't afford to put that much pressure on the defense given the Seahawks own explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball. If Kaepernick and Co. can execute on their way to the 20-yard line, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to stay efficient inside of it.

Fourth Down: Who should trade jerseys...

Andrew: Perrish Cox and... whichever wideout he covers. Cox would figure to man the slot, where Seahawks pass-catchers Golden Tate and Percy Harvin are known to line up. If 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers misses a third straight postseason game, Cox will again see a lot of playing time. Cox acquitted himself well in extended action at Green Bay before coming off the bench at Carolina. This time, however, he would be facing a team that released him about three weeks ago, on Dec. 27. Cox doesn't seem the sort to hold hard feelings, so while he'll be all-business for 60 minutes on Sunday, it wouldn't surprise to see him laugh it up and swap uniforms with a newly-minted ex-teammate.

Taylor: I’m not sure if Cox has much love for the Seahawks right about now. It would be hard to find two willing players to swap jerseys with after one team advances to the Super Bowl and the other team contemplates the “what ifs” from a late-season loss. But for the sake of keeping mutual respect alive in the game, I’ll take Frank Gore and Earl Thomas. Both players are difference-makers for their respective squads and have played important roles in getting their teams to this point. Gore and Thomas were linked in the last meeting on the 49ers running back’s 51-yard scamper. Gore set up Thomas with an open-field cut-back move that helped lead to a game-winning field goal. Thomas likely hasn’t forgotten the play and will look to avenge the previous outcome. If he’s unable to, a Gore jersey would be a lovely parting gift.

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