There comes a point in every NFL season when a contender knows exactly what it has going.
The San Francisco 49ers are about to reach that point this Sunday, when they meet the Seattle Seahawks. It's a game that won't have much impact on the division race -- Seattle is running away with that at this point -- but it is one that will let us know if San Francisco will ever keep pace with its NFC West rival in the coming years. In other words, we're about to learn if the 49ers will ever be as good as they were over the past two seasons.
This is more a testament to Seattle than it is a knock on San Francisco. The Seahawks have taken a team that was young and promising a year ago and turned it into the best squad in the NFL at the moment. They have everything a head coach would want in a roster -- talented quarterback, strong running game, stingy defense and reliable special teams. It's no coincidence that Seattle, now 11-1, is riding a seven-game winning streak, its only loss coming in Indianapolis on Oct. 6.
One of those victories was a 29-3 beatdown of the 49ers in Week 2 that is even more revealing in hindsight. San Francisco already was vulnerable because of key injuries, especially at wide receiver. But Seattle's dominance that day suggested that there was a greater divide between the two teams, one that had more to do than with just timely circumstances. The Seahawks looked like a team about to see how high it could fly. The 49ers seemed battered and bruised and even doubtful of what it would take to regain their own swagger.
At this stage, San Francisco still feels like a team trying to find itself as the homestretch of the playoffs nears. The 49ers' 8-4 record is solid only when discounting the fact that they've beaten one team that currently has a winning record (Arizona). Even if you give them credit for a Week 1 win over Green Bay with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the 49ers have lost to four teams that are certain to make the playoffs (Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina and New Orleans). The scary part is they've scored a grand total of 39 points in those four defeats.
A loss to Seattle this weekend wouldn't merely give the Seahawks three straight wins in this rivalry. It would alter the entire view of a 49ers team that was destined to run roughshod over the division just two years ago. Head coach Jim Harbaugh took his team to the NFC title game in his first season and the Super Bowl in his second. Few people outside of Washington saw the Seahawks running the 49ers down after that kind of start.
The same 49ers squad that appeared to be set for a long run now has legitimate flaws. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has played better over the past two weeks, but his earlier inconsistency led to San Francisco's running a more conservative offense. The offensive line, one of the best in the NFL, could be hindered Sunday because of injuries (left tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati), and running back Frank Gore is still plagued by a lingering ankle sprain. The team also had to deal with the drama involving Pro Bowl outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who is finding himself after returning from a recent stint in rehab. And those are some of the bigger issues.
It's easy to say the 49ers will be stronger now that injured wide receiver Michael Crabtree is healthy again. It also would be crazy to think that they still hold any kind of mental edge in this rivalry with Seattle. The Seahawks have outscored San Francisco 71-16 in the past two meetings. The people who want to think that disparity has everything to do with Seattle playing at home in those contests are really missing the point.
The Seahawks aren't just the better team right now. They're looking very much like the better team over the long haul. Their young star quarterback (Russell Wilson) is blossoming into a legitimate candidate for league MVP. The toughest runner in the league not named Adrian Peterson leads their ground attack (Marshawn Lynch). Their defense even has a slight edge over the 49ers' stout unit, thanks to a ball-hawking secondary and a vicious pass rush. Just think about what happens when wide receiver Percy Harvin finally shakes off the predictable rust involved in returning from preseason hip surgery.
The 49ers knew this was coming sooner or later. Seattle became a legitimate rival last season, when the teams were taking shots at each other both on and off the field. Now they're in a place they haven't been since Harbaugh became their head coach. They're back to being the hunters instead of the hunted. They're looking to prove themselves to people who haven't had a reason to doubt them since Mike Singletary was running the team.
The best place to start would be at Candlestick Park on Sunday afternoon. The Seahawks will be coming in with plenty of motivation -- a chance to clinch the division title and a first-round bye in the process. The best the 49ers can do is remind Seattle why this became the NFL's hottest rivalry in the first place. Tight end Vernon Davis already has put the burden on his team, telling the San Jose Mercury News that this contest is definitely "a statement game."
What has to be determined is what that "statement" is. We know the Seahawks have delivered their own message over the course of the season. We also know they will be a tough out if they end up playing two playoff games on their home turf. But that's way too much to ponder at this stage. It's more interesting to see what the 49ers will do at such a critical juncture of their most adverse season of the Harbaugh era and what this game will say about them come Sunday night.