Tuesday 20 March 2018 / 07:09 AM

Niners and Hawks on track to miss playoffs

Last year’s NFC Championship game will go down in history as one of the greatest conference title match-ups of all time. From now on, when talking Niners football, it would be inaccurate to talk about “The Catch” without sheepishly mentioning “The Tip.”

Right now, however, neither the 49ers nor the Seahawks are going to be overly interested in chatting about Sherman, Crabtree, or any other subject unrelated to getting their 2014 season back on track.

If the season ended today, both Seattle and San Francisco would watch the postseason from home – and that’s a fact, Jack.

History is not kind to slow starters.

During the Super Bowl era, just 38 per cent of teams that start the season 3-3 make it to the playoffs. Seattle’s roster boasts far more talent than your average .500 team, of course, but as of late it sure doesn’t look like it.

And then there’s this:

San Francisco is slightly better off, having already earned their fourth victory, but last weekend’s blowout loss to the Broncos showcased the fact that this is no longer an elite roster on the defensive side of the ball.

Injuries taking their toll

The 49ers are missing NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis to injury and Aldon Smith to suspension. Talk about a gaping hole in your defense.

But all three players will be back for the stretch run, essentially guaranteeing improvement on at least one side of the ball.

The Niners have already been wobbly on the O-line before losing center Daniel Kilgore for the season with a broken leg.

The Hawks are beyond banged up, too.

On offense, they’re missing starting center Max Unger, both starting tight ends, fullback Derrick Coleman (who is most likely out for the season with a broken foot), and on the O-line, Russell Okung and James Carpenter are playing on hobbled legs.

Players absent on D include Byron Maxwell, Bobby Wagner and Defensive Linemen Cassius Marsh and Jordan Hill.

Year in and year out, it’s no secret that luck with injuries is a contributing factor to a team’s success. Pete Carroll can spout “Next man up” all he wants, but when the difference between the NFL’s top-tier teams and the middle of the pack is like splitting hairs, you can’t lose 10 per cent of your starting line-up without dropping in class.

So what’s gone awry?

First let’s look at the 49ers.

Frank Gore is averaging just 60 yards per game and the once-feared Niners rushing attack is ranked 11th in the league. Their average of 125.1 yards per four quarters is a respectable tally in today’s pass-happy NFL, but 232.3 passing yards per game hardly qualifies as firepower through the air. Combine the two and you’ve got the NFL’s 14th ranked offense.

But the real issue is that the Niners D is hemorrhaging points (23.6 PPG). They may be ranked No.2 in total yards allowed (306.0), but they just don’t score enough to win in a shootout. Only once this season has San Francisco won when giving up 20 or more points.

For the Seahawks, it’s been a question of discipline.

Last season, the Hawks led the NFL in penalties due to aggressive play on the defensive side of the ball. In 2014, a shaky offensive line is piling up a crushing number of pre-snap penalties and holding calls that negate big plays.

The Seahawks have had far too many touchdowns called back due to mental errors and if they don’t reel in the yellow flags the offense simply won’t be allowed to get into a rhythm.

What happened to the ‘Legion of Boom’?

The Seattle secondary simply isn’t producing turnovers like they have over the course of the past two seasons.

While fingers are pointing Sherman’s way, saying that he has been “exposed”, the reality is that the loss of Chris Clemons to Jacksonville is proving to be far more detrimental than the team had anticipated.

There’s no doubt that Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor are top-tier defensive backs, but even the best safeties and corners in the league rely on pressure up front to force quick passes and errant throws. Seattle rarely blitzes in order to hold linebackers back for added support in coverage, but their front four have been bullied all season long, giving opposing quarterbacks far too much time to throw.

Bruce Irvin has not developed into the speedy pass rusher that they’d hoped he’d become and Michael Bennett is having trouble getting to the quarterback without Clemons wreaking havoc from the opposite end.

To date, nobody has stepped up to fill the Clemons’ void on the pass rush, and if it doesn’t happen very soon this team could be in real danger of continuing the trend of Super Bowl champions missing the playoffs or heading home in the Wild Card Round.

Controlling their own destiny

In a 16-game season, tides shift quickly (and often) and history tells us that “if the season ended today” talk is pretty meaningless when it sprouts up before teams have completed even half their games.

Half of the 49ers’ remaining schedule features opponents with a losing record and they get a chance to revenge their loss to the Cardinals in week 17 at home.

The Seahawks have yet to play either Arizona or San Francisco, which presents both a challenge and a real opportunity.

Both teams will fight hard to see to it that the Cardinals don’t reclaim the NFC West title that they haven’t held since 2009, but this Cards team looks like it’s for real:

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Michael Airhart

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