SEATTLE — Pete Carroll built the Seattle Seahawks so moments like playing for an NFC championship don’t feel out of the ordinary.
It’s similar to what he created at USC when the Trojans were constantly in the national spotlight. Carroll has proven he can win in important situations, and Sunday’s NFC championship game gives his players a chance to show they’ve learned the lessons he’s passed on.
“The mindset and mentality to win games for a long period of time, it’s the same feeling,” Carroll said. “It really takes a process to become comfortable with that. Hopefully, we become comfortable with it. I think the 49ers have had the great luxury of being there before, so they know what to expect and what to anticipate.”
While the 49ers might have the experience playing in their third straight NFC title game, Sunday’s tilt is being played in Seattle, where the Seahawks possess the greatest, noisiest home-field advantage in the NFL. It’s a place where Russell Wilson has lost just once in his career. It’s a place where Marshawn Lynch tends to go “Beast Mode” in big games.
It’s where the best defense in the NFL resides and has made life miserable for Colin Kaepernick in his last two trips to the Pacific Northwest.
The combined score of 71-16 in the last two games in Seattle still means something.
“It’s a challenge and I’m always welcoming challenges,” Seattle safety Kam Chancellor said of facing the 49ers. “It brings the best out of you, and it makes you a better player, so I mean any time you can get a team that comes in and plays hard and competes, anything like that in competing, I’m all about it.”
Sure, the Seahawks will be without Percy Harvin due to a concussion. Sure, the Seahawks’ offense has looked drearier than the Seattle skyline for two-thirds of the year. They still have enough punch to be Super Bowl-bound.
Harvin would have given Seattle a jolt of speed that no one else on the roster can match. Just being on the field can provide openings for others, as evidenced by Lynch’s first touchdown run last week against the Saints.
But Seattle won 12 times during the season with Harvin as a spectator. Wilson was good through the air during Week 14 in San Francisco, taking advantage of short routes to his receivers. He’s also had success going downfield and finding his tight ends. Zach Miller has been a favored target in the past, but it was rookie Luke Willson who had three catches for 70 yards and a touchdown in Week 14.
“We’re 14-3 and in the NFC championship against the 49ers. It doesn’t get any better,” Wilson said. “So at the end of the day I just want to find a way to win every single time I step out on the field.”
No matter the recent slump of Seattle’s offense, the Seahawks still were No. 1 overall, in pass and scoring defense in the NFL led by All-Pros Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Kaepernick has not shown he can handle the atmosphere of playing in Seattle, with two of the worst games in his career coming at CenturyLink Field.
And there might not be a greater telling point for Sunday’s outcome than whether Seattle can stop Frank Gore. Fifteen times Gore has been the starting running back for the 49ers when facing the Seahawks, and in seven losses to Seattle he has not topped the 100-yard mark. In his last four losses to Seattle, Gore has not rushed for more than 38 yards.
The only reason Gore topped 100 yards and the 49ers were in position to beat the Seahawks in December was his late 51-yard run to set up the winning field goal.
Lastly, don’t forget about special teams. Seattle had the best punt return coverage team in the NFL. Kicker Steven Hauschka is 17 of 18 on field goal attempts at CenturyLink Field this season and his only miss was on a 24-yard chip shot where the timing was off and the kick hit an upright.
There’s a reason Seattle has won 16 of 17 at home. There’s a reason it hasn’t lost a home playoff game since 2004. There’s a reason Jim Harbaugh is winless in his last two trips to Seattle.
“As a competitor, you want this to be a close game, and you want it to be magnified so you can step up and make that play,” Seattle safety Earl Thomas said.
It will be.