SANTA CLARA – Fred Warner’s wise words this past week evoked the magnitude of last Sunday’s 42-19 thrashing by the 49ers in Philadelphia.
“Philly is done and over with. We’re not talking about Philly from here on out,” Warner said, “and we’re on to Seattle.”
Essentially, the eyes can now be on the 2023 season’s prize, not last season’s Super Bowl bid that died in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.
When the first-place 49ers (9-3) welcome the Seattle Seahawks (6-6) into Levi’s Stadium for a 1:05 p.m. kickoff Sunday, the focus should strictly be on winning an 11th straight NFC West game and closing in on a second straight division title.
But what about a letdown? The 49ers are aware of that danger, having gone through it two months ago, when they followed their 42-10 rout of the Dallas Cowboys by falling 19-17 at the Cleveland Browns to spark a three-game losing streak.
Now the 49ers already can clinch a playoff berth, by pairing a win over the Seahawks with a loss from either the Minnesota Vikings (at the Las Vegas Raiders, 1:05 p.m. kickoff) or the Green Bay Packers (at the New York Giants, 5:15 p.m.).
The Seahawks have lost three straight, so 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy is expecting a “dogfight,” only 17 days after claiming a 31-13 win in Seattle on Thanksgiving night and enjoying a postgame turkey spread.
“It’s a cat and mouse game of what are they going to change, what are we going to change, who’s going to change anything at all,” tight end George Kittle said. “I find that fascinating. Seattle is definitely in a place where they’re going to give us everything they’ve got. … Who’s going to do right longer. That’s every Seattle game.”
Here are the five keys to a fifth straight win over the Seahawks:
1. MUST STOP METCALF
Arguably the best one-on-one matchup in the NFC West this season (excluding the Rams’ Aaron Donald vs. multiple linemen) pits 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward against Seahawks wide receiver D.K. Metcalf.
Coach Kyle Shanahan called an audible before their last meeting and assigned Ward to travel with Metcalf in coverage. Metcalf finished with three catches on nine targets for 32 yards, similar to the 49ers’ previous visit to Seattle, when Ward helped limit Metcalf to 55 yards (seven catches).
Metcalf commended Ward, or at least his marching orders: “Any corner who can travel with me for a whole duration of a game, I have mad respect for. … (They are) not gonna back down from a fight and they’re pretty good in man-man coverage.”
In Metcalf’s last visit to Levi’s Stadium, he had 136 yards and two touchdowns, with 10 receptions on 13 targets in the 49ers’ 41-23 wild-card playoff win Jan. 14.
Metcalf is coming off a season-best performance (134 yards, three touchdowns) in the Seahawks’ 41-35 loss at Dallas. In turn, Ward had a season-high four passes defensed last Sunday in Philadelphia, vaulting him into the NFL lead with 19 on the season. “He’s playing with great technique, eyes in the right spot,” 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said of Ward. “He’s just really locked in and focused.”
2. BALL SECURITY
The 49ers committed two turnovers in their season-opening, five-game win streak. They’ve committed one in this current four-game heater.
“Our team did a great job of securing it, tucking it,” tight end George Kittle said of the turnover-free win in Philly. “That’s just something we emphasize from Day 1, because we feel if we can stay on the field the whole time, our offense is going to score a lot of points.”
Their point totals in those nine wins: 30, 30, 30, 35, 42, 34, 27, 31, 42 – an average of 33.4 points per win.
They scored just 17 points in each of their losses to Cleveland, Minnesota and Cincinnati. They had seven turnovers in that Octoberflop.
In winning the past four meetings with Seattle, the 49ers posted a plus-seven turnover differential (8:1)
3. STOP (FILL IN BLANK) RUSHER
The Seahawks’ top two running backs are banged up, and both Kenneth Walker III (oblique) and Zach Charbonnet (knee) are listed as questionable, as is wide receiver Dee Eskridge, who had a 10-yard run last game against the 49ers but has since sustained rib injuries.
Charbonnet ran for only 47 yards last game, but he ran for six first downs after halftime, which constitutes a red flag for the 49ers’ defense. “They can look at the tape and see holes and see that they played the run pretty well against us and have confidence going into the game,” Nick Bosa said. “But I expect a harder matchup.”
Expect hard hits once again from Dre Greenlaw as he returns from last Sunday’s sideline-scuffle ejection in Philadlephia.
As well as the 49ers did Sunday in buttoning Jalen Hurts into the pocket, they must also be on alert for Geno Smith’s scrambling ability. Who wouldn’t want to run from that pass rush?
In terms of the 49ers’ rushing game, Christian McCaffrey has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (NFL-leading 1,032 yards). His top backup, Elijah Mitchell, is doubtful with more knee troubles, so Jordan Mason could be summoned in what’s been rare relief needed this season behind McCaffrey.
4. REBOOT PASS RUSH
After intentionally stalling their pass rush last game to successfully fluster Jalen Hurts, the 49ers should get back to work with their high-speed rail line. But against which quarterback?
Smith hurt his groin Thursday and is questionable, only three weeks removed from an injury near his throwing elbow. The Seahawks on Friday signed Sean Mannion (Foothill High-Pleasanton) onto the practice squad as an emergency No. 3 quarterback behind Drew Lock.
The 49ers sacked Smith six times last game, and they beat him three times last year. This time around, the defensive front will have a different rotation. Defensive tackle Arik Armstead (foot, knee) is out. If Javon Kinlaw is thrust into the lineup to replace Armstead and line up next to Javon Hargrave, the Javon-Javon package could be fun to watch, from a 49ers’ standpoint.
Kinlaw’s two sacks Sunday in Philadelphia were his first since his rookie year of 2020, when he totaled just 1 ½ sacks. On top of that production, Kinlaw was absolutely thrilled postgame when Eagles center Jason Kelce commended him on improving a lot since last season’s NFC Championship Game.
5. OFFENSIVE LINE PROTECTION
Disregard the poor grades handed to the 49ers’ offensive line by ProFootballFocus for last game, because that sure looked like the unit’s best outing of recent seasons. Right guard Spencer Burford’s knee issues have him doubtful, so look for the 49ers to plug in Jon Feliciano there, as was the case last game against Seattle.
The Seahawks sacked Dak Prescott four times and totaled seven hits on him last game, so that element of danger can’t be overlooked in terms of protecting NFL MVP-favorite Brock Purdy.
Purdy got sacked just once by the Seahawks on Thanksgiving, but he did throw the first pick-six of his career. Linebacker Jordyn Brooks did those honors for Seattle, then he sustained an ankle injury at Dallas to keep him out of practice this past week.
Nose tackle Jarran Reed and outside linebacker Boye Mafe have combined for 12 sacks and each has 11 quarterback hits. Reed (hamstring) is questionable, as is linebacker Jordyn Brooks, who produced the first career pick-six against Purdy last game.
Chris Foerster, the 49ers’ offensive line coach, reserved praise for his unit after their effort against the Eagles: “I know you guys know that I love this group. They really work hard for us every single day. But we’re a work in progress still. …The guys did a nice job, but I’m not going to crown anybody yet.”