The excitement is building among NFL fans as the AFC and NFC title games draw near, games that will showcase some of the most compelling conference championships in history.
In the NFC championship game, the San Francisco 49ers will head to Seattle to play the Seahawks in what has become one of the most intriguing rivalries in the NFL. The fans of both teams have had well-documented rivalry pranks on one another all season, and it seems only fitting that the two NFC powerhouses meet head on with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
CenturyLink Field in Seattle, combined with its "12th Man" crowd, has developed a reputation as an extremely hostile environment. In fact, the Seattle crowd has been known to be so loud and rowdy that it has caused earthquakes during games. It is widely considered the loudest stadium in the NFL, and the noise levels have given opponents trouble all year. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick will need much more than a nice pair of headphones to overcome the Seahawks crowd.
To get a good idea of what type of action will take place Sunday, it is important to look at the type of season each team has had and things to watch for in the matchup.
You can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter at @MitchKunzler.
When: Sunday, Jan. 19, at 4:30 p.m. MST
Where: CenturyLink Field in Seattle
TV coverage: FOX
Following their loss to the Baltimore Ravens in last year's Super Bowl, the 49ers had a chip on their shoulder, and redeeming themselves by winning the Super Bowl this year is their ultimate goal.
All season, the Niners have done what they do best: run the football and play smash-mouth defense. San Francisco has gained a reputation for its physical play, and rightly so; its physicality normally winds up being the difference-maker in its games.
San Francisco has gained a reputation for its defense, which was ranked fifth in the league in total defense and fourth in run defense. Its elite defensive front gives opponents fits when trying to run the ball and protect the quarterback.
The 49ers haven't had any head-scratching losses this season, as each loss has come at the hands of a team that made the playoffs. They have been the model of consistency for the entire NFL while performing at an elite level. If San Francisco has one weakness, it is in its passing game. While quarterback Colin Kaepernick is one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the league, he took a ton of criticism this year following a couple of sub-par performances. If given an adequate amount of protection, Kaepernick can make any defense pay with his arm.
The 49ers ended the season on a six-game winning streak with a 12-4 record, which matched them up against the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the playoffs. Despite the extreme cold weather, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers having returned from injury, Kaepernick was able to make the necessary plays through the air (227 yards) and on the ground (98 yards) to lead the 49ers to the 23-20 win.
After the win in Green Bay, the Niners were matched up against Cam Newton and the second seed Carolina Panthers. Even though Carolina was at home, it was the 49ers that ran the table all game.
The Niners' defense wreaked havoc all game, sacking Newton five times and forcing him to throw two interceptions. They held the Panthers scoreless in the second half, which led to the 23-10 win.
Like San Francisco, the Seahawks also entered the season with a big chip on their shoulder. They didn't think they were getting the respect they deserved. They opened the season on an impressive 4-0 run, and the NFL began to view them as one of the dominant teams in the league.
After their hot start, they dropped a close game to the Indianapolis Colts. Instead of letting the loss get their spirits down, the Seahawks used it as motivation and went on to win seven straight games.
Because of devastating injuries to wide receivers Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice, the Seahawks didn't pass the ball as well as they would have liked. But behind second-year quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch, they were able to lead Seattle to become the sixth-ranked rushing attack in the NFL at 136.8 yards per game.
What made the Seahawks really special, however, was their devastating defense. They were the best in the NFL in total defense, allowing just 273.6 yards per game, ranked third in the NFL in passing defense, allowing only 172 yards per game, and ranked seventh in rushing defense, allowing 101.6 yards per game.
In the end, their 13-3 record earned the Seahawks the top playoff seed in the NFC, which guarantees home-field advantage throughout the playoffs until the Super Bowl.
Following their first round bye, the Seahawks hosted the New Orleans Saints, a team that was looking to win its second away playoff game in franchise history. With Drew Brees under center, the Saints liked their chances in any game. But Marshawn Lynch proved to be too big of an obstacle.
Lynch broke tackle after tackle as he went on to run for 140 yards and two touchdowns in the game. The Seahawks jumped out to a 16-0 lead early, and despite a late comeback attempt from the Saints, Seattle was able to scrape away with the 23-15 win.
Midway through September, the Seahawks hosted the 49ers in a game that San Francisco would love to forget. The Seattle defense dominated the 49ers as it forced five turnovers, including three interceptions from Kaepernick, who posted 14 total QBR, the lowest of his career.
Marshawn Lynch scored all three of the Seahawks' touchdowns as Seattle went on to win the game 29-3.
If Seattle can force the 49ers to commit turnovers and can establish a solid running game with Lynch, then Seattle will be in a great position to win the game.
At the beginning of December, the Seahawks and Niners met again, this time with San Francisco hosting the matchup. And like in the previous matchup, the home team was victorious.
The 49ers' defense did a much better job slowing down Lynch as he only ran for 72 yards. On the flip side, San Francisco running back Frank Gore ran 110 yards. But it was the defenses of both teams that made the biggest difference. In the second half, each team was held to merely three points. But since the 49ers were able to put up two more points in the first half, they went on to win the game 19-17.
If the 49ers can establish their smash-mouth run game behind Gore, then they will be able to control the pace of the game. If their defense can put pressure on Russell Wilson and slow down Lynch, then the 49ers will have a shot at winning in Seattle.
The Seahawks have won six straight home playoff games and have won 15 of the last 16 games played in Seattle.
Since Michael Crabtree has returned from an injury, the 49ers are undefeated. They have won eight straight games. Much emphasis has been placed in recent memory upon playoff teams that are hot, and with their current win streak, the 49ers certainly fit that description.
In his last six games against Seattle, Frank Gore has scored only one touchdown. Marshawn Lynch has scored seven touchdowns in his last six games against San Francisco.
Will Tukuafu (East High), San Francisco fullback
Paul McQuistan (Weber State), Seattle offensive lineman
Robert Turbin (Utah State), Seattle running back
Bobby Wagner (Utah State), Seattle linebacker