San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks
Start-time: Monday, 01:30
TV: Live on Sky Sports 1
If the pre-season markets were to be believed, one division houses two of the season's likeliest candidates for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. And while the structure of Super Bowl qualification means they cannot actually meet in the grand finale, there was very little in either of the Week One performances from the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers to disabuse you of the notion that both sides are in for the long haul this term.
The Niners came back to deny Green Bay (another legitimate championship contender), while the Hawks demonstrated that key ability to win ugly against Carolina. So if the NFC West is looking a little greedy in the talent stakes, it should be remembered that this has been one of the weakest divisions in the league for the past decade. They were due.
Much of the renaissance for both the 49ers and the Seahawks has been predicated on versatile young quarterbacks and staunch defenses. This superficial symmetry makes this weekend's feature clash completely compelling, even if you think it's premature to be discussing play-off implications and homefield advantage at this stage of the campaign.
Not that there was much mirroring to be found the last time these two met at CenturyLink Field, where the Hawks soared amid a raucous atmosphere to humble their rivals 42-13. It was the worst defeat of coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure and the result was never in doubt after the 49ers' offense was bullied and bruised into conceding an early 21-point lead.
The Seahawks will not expect to jump out to such a telling advantage this time, but their defense remains one of the few in the NFL capable of stifling the twin-threat capability of QB Colin Kaepernick. Green Bay are one of the most complete outfits around, but in his last two matches Kaepernick has skinned their cat-like defense in many ways. Firstly, on the ground for 181 yards. And through the air for another 412 last week.
Slowing the star signal-caller is the better part of stopping him. The Hawks can certainly achieve that. Last year, their harrying, athletic group restricted Kaepernick to 31 yards rushing and an approximate 50% completion percentage. While that will doubtless prove an erroneous point tonight, Kaepernick remains inexperienced and looked lost in this intimidating venue, where the hostile crowd really plays a part. Seattle posted more impressive numbers against Carolina last week (250 total offense, only seven points conceded), so this side is continuing where they left off.
They can also move the chains effectively on the other side of the ball. And while Kaepernick's opposite number, Russell Wilson, had an off-day against the Panthers, he still managed his first 300-yard day (strange as that may sound). Running back Marshawn Lynch was given a torrid time by Carolina as well. A paltry figure of 43 rushing yards is not a stat you invariably find next to Lynch's name, but he will benefit from having flexed his feet against a sturdy Panthers line.
The Niners D is also to be feared. Yet, more tellingly, Lynch has chalked up three 100-yard performances in as many games against the Red and Gold. Expect that trend to continue here. He has a game-changing role to play - either flying solo, or by taking some heat off Wilson.
It should be close. However, I expect home comforts to prove the kicker here - worth a field goal at least (and that's the handicap call from Vegas). It would be a shame if these two towering teams cancel one another out on the road to the Super Bowl, but thus the fates decree. This Week Two contest won't be the end of it, of course, but Pete Carroll can continue his coaching comeback against Harbaugh since losing out to him during their competitive collegiate careers.
Old habits die hard. Old rivalries even harder.
Back Seattle Seahawks to win on the Moneyline @ 1.728/11 or better
Back Seattle Seahawks (-3) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.728/11 or better
Back Seattle Seahawks (-1.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 1.728/11 or better
Back M.Lynch to score First Touchdown @ 7.06/1 or better