The San Francisco 49ers’ unexpected three-game losing streak that opened up the NFC West race already seems like a long time ago.
The 49ers play at Seattle on Thursday night with a chance to take a two-game lead in the division. A win by the 49ers (7-3) would be their fourth straight over the Seahawks and their 10th straight against NFC West opponents.
A win by Seattle (6-4) would erase the taste of a frustrating loss last Sunday at the Los Angeles Rams and pull the Seahawks even in the standings heading into a brutal stretch of their schedule.
“Division opponent and we need to get a win on these guys so that we even up with them, so that’s pretty clear,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We understand.”
It’s also pretty clear that whatever vulnerabilities the 49ers showed last month in losing to Cleveland, Minnesota and Cincinnati seem to be fixed. Coming back from their bye, the Niners thumped Jacksonville and last Sunday cruised past Tampa Bay.
This setup feels very familiar for the 49ers. A year ago, the Niners routed Tampa Bay in mid-December in the first start of quarterback Brock Purdy’s career, then went to Seattle on a short week and beat the Seahawks 21-13. Purdy threw for two touchdowns and had a 117.0 passer rating in that victory, the second-highest he’s posted in a road game.
“They’re a good team. We’re not going in thinking, ‘Oh, we beat these guys however many times before.’ It isn’t like that,” Purdy said. “This is a new game, new team, and that’s how we’re looking at it.”
On the other side, Seattle expects quarterback Geno Smith to start after he left last week’s game in the second half with a bruised triceps on his throwing arm. Smith was limited in his throwing during the truncated days of practice, but was a full participant on Wednesday.
The 49ers’ offense has added a new element this year with Purdy hitting on deep passes that help open up the run game and shorter throws. Purdy’s 20 completions on throws at least 20 yards downfield are the most for any 49ers quarterback in coach Kyle Shanahan’s seven seasons. He has completed 60.5% of his deep throws with four TDs, no interceptions and a 144.3 rating that would be the highest for any qualifying QB since Sportradar began tracking air yards in 2006.
“I think it’s just another component that the defense has to be aware about and respect,” Purdy said. “Obviously it can open up a lot of other things when there’s a threat of going deep. We have the personnel where we can go deep and we have some speed. There’s opportunities when the defense gives the right look for us and when we have the right play on, let’s let it rip and let’s take a shot.”
Three Seattle rookies are going to get major opportunities on the national stage. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon already had one big prime-time game in Week 4 against the New York Giants. He’ll need to again be a factor on the defensive side like he was last week against the Rams when he had eight tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.
On offense, running back Zach Charbonnet seems likely to get his first start with Kenneth Walker III out due to an oblique injury. Charbonnet had 15 carries last week and will probably need at least that many if Seattle is to have success on offense.
And the Seahawks continue to try getting wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba more involved. Smith-Njigba had three catches for 40 yards against the Rams.
The 49ers weren’t surprised when rookie Ji’Ayir Brown delivered a couple of big plays late last week when he was forced into his first extensive action following a season-ending knee injury to 2022 All-Pro Talanoa Hufanga. Brown broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone and added an interception, carrying over his strong play from the practice field. Now he is set for his first start, and defensive captain Fred Warner said he doesn’t believe Brown will need any special pep talk to be ready.
“Other people probably from the outside looking in are probably thinking you got to grab him, look in his eyes and be like ‘Don’t mess this up,’” Warner said. “Obviously he came in and did his thing last week. He’s fully capable of coming in and playing the position at a high level and he’s fitting right in to what our game plan is going to be.”
Seattle hasn’t played on Thanksgiving since 2014 when it walked out of Levi’s Stadium with a 19-3 win over the 49ers and cornerback Richard Sherman carried a celebratory turkey. Seattle is 2-2 on Thanksgiving but this will be its first home game on the holiday.
The 49ers have also played sparingly on Thanksgiving and haven’t won on the holiday since 1972.
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