Five story lines to monitor in Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers:
'What's your deal?': That was the line coach Pete Carroll infamously uttered to counterpart Jim Harbaugh when the latter's Stanford Cardinal thumped the former's USC Trojans 55-21 in Los Angeles four years ago. The rivalry rebooted in the NFC West when Harbaugh took over the 49ers in 2011, one year after Carroll grabbed the reins in Seattle. Both men usually try to downplay their perceived personal rivalry, though Harbaugh encouraged the Seahawks to "play by the rules" last June amid Seattle's rash of drug suspensions. Since Harbaugh assumed the headset, the Niners have won four of six from Carroll's team. However their two trips to Seattle in the past 13 months have produced a pair of embarrassing losses with Seattle winning by a collective score of 71-16. Harbaugh has also supplied professional motivation to Seahawks all-pro CB Richard Sherman and WR Doug Baldwin, who both played for him at Stanford but watched the 49ers pass on them in the 2011 draft. Seattle picked Sherman, a converted wideout, in the fifth round and developed him into the NFL's premier cover corner. Baldwin signed as a free agent and led the team in receiving as an undrafted rookie. Both will enter Sunday's game with key responsibilities.
Leading men: Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick are two of the league's most promising young quarterbacks. Yet both line up in front of veteran tailbacks who relish their roles as physical tone-setters and are throwback "run to set up the pass" bellcows. Their performances in their respective buildings tend to be an accurate barometer of the rivalry's outcome. Gore has averaged 127 rushing yards against Seattle at Candlestick Park, and the 49ers are 5-2 in those home games; he's only been good for 52 yards per game in nine appearances in Seattle, and his team is 3-6 in those games. Lynch is 0-4 in San Francisco, averaging fewer than 60 yards, but has gone 2-1 against the 49ers in Seattle, where he's churned his way to 105 yards on average and has scored at least one TD in all three matchups. Such history clearly favors the Seahawks and Lynch, who was at his "Beast Mode" best Saturday while running over and around the New Orleans Saints for a playoff personal best 140 yards and two scores.
Impact wideouts: San Francisco WR Michael Crabtree and Seattle counterpart Percy Harvin were expected to be key pieces to their respective offenses in 2013 but ended up spending most of the season rehabilitating injuries. But Crabtree returned Dec. 1 from Achilles' surgery, and the 49ers haven't lost since. He hasn't posted eye-popping numbers — just one TD and 62.1 receiving yards per game during his seven starts — but his on-field presence has drawn attention away from WR Anquan Boldin and TE Vernon Davis. Crabtree didn't play in the Week 2 loss at Seattle but caught four passes for 40 yards in last month's win over the Seahawks in San Francisco. Harvin has only played in two games, both Seattle wins, since his offseason acquisition from the Minnesota Vikings, slowed all season by his surgically repaired hip before suffering a concussion Saturday against the Saints. If he can't play Sunday, Baldwin and Golden Tate will be Wilson's primary targets, though neither may command double coverage, and that could mean Wilson will be staring down a ferocious array of blitzes. Seattle's offense, which sputtered late in the regular season, slowed noticeably against New Orleans after Harvin was ruled out at halftime.
Defenses never rest: The Seahawks and 49ers field defenses widely regarded as the NFL's best. Seattle allowed the fewest points and yards in the league in 2013, topped the charts in takeaways and turnover differential and boast an elite secondary manned by Sherman, Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas and bonecrushing strong safety Kam Chancellor. The 49ers surrendered the third-fewest points and fifth-fewest yards, in large part because they have the league's best linebacking corps. Wilson and Kaepernick both suffered their lowest-rated games as NFL starters against the opposing unit, and Kaepernick has committed five turnovers during his two starts at CenturyLink Field. The teams do employ varying philosophies. Seattle plays a 4-3 base concept and is constantly rotating fresh bodies into the game, especially on the D-line. San Francisco favors a 3-4 approach and tends to use fewer substitutions, choosing to usually stick with its elite corps of starters.
12th Man: If any team is equipped to cope with the din and weather associated with Seattle's raucous venue, it's the 49ers. Yet Harbaugh has suffered his two worst defeats as an NFL coach there, and the Niners were shockingly not competitive in those visits. Still, they won't be cowed by the hostile surroundings and having Crabtree obviously changes the equation from the 29-3 Week 2 debacle. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have appeared unusually vulnerable at home recently and dropped their first game there in two years last month to the Arizona Cardinals. Wilson has been pedestrian (157.6 passing yards per game, 4 TDs, 3 INTs) and so has the team lately, going 3-2 since the Niners snapped their seven-game winning streak Dec. 8. The 'Hawks may get home cooking, but more heat is coming out of the 49ers' kitchen right now.