SEATTLE — When it comes to the Week 7 matchup between the Seahawks and 49ers in San Francisco, “it feels like we played that game last year or something,” Seattle center Max Unger said Tuesday.
It was Oct. 18, to be exact, but as the rematch looms on Sunday, it’s no wonder that the first game, which resulted in a hard-fought 13-6 San Francisco victory at Candlestick Park, seems so remote.
Both teams have undergone significant transformation. The 49ers have a different quarterback, with Colin Kaepernick replacing Alex Smith as the starter on Nov. 19.
An injury was the original impetus for the change, but even when Smith returned to health, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick, who has guided them to four victories in five starts. That includes a huge win over New England last Sunday that took just a bit of the luster away from the upcoming game. Kaepernick threw four touchdown passes to earn the NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award on Tuesday.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, believe that they have honed their offense since it sputtered at Candlestick, producing just 251 net yards. Their scoring was limited to two Steven Hauschka field goals.
In their past two games, the Seahawks have scored 108 points in wins over Arizona and Buffalo. The Seahawks haven’t changed quarterbacks like San Francisco, but they’re hoping it’s a different Russell Wilson on Sunday. In the first 49ers game, Wilson had his worst statistical performance, completing just 9 of 23 passes for 122 yards, with a key interception late in the game on a long pass intended for Braylon Edwards. But that’s another distant memory.
“It all begins with the quarterback, obviously,” said wide receiver Doug Baldwin. “Russell is playing at an extremely high level right now. It’s just the maturity and growth, and we’ve all come to grow with him. This offense as a whole has been able to rally behind the things he does well. At the beginning of the season, we were kind of searching for that.”
After the 49ers game, Wilson’s quarterback rating sat at a pedestrian 79.4. Since then, he’s completed 118 of 178 passes (66 percent) for 1,467 yards and 13 touchdowns with just two interceptions for a 111.3 quarterback rating. The Seahawks are 5-2 in those games.
“I think our quarterback getting better week in and week out definitely helps our team,” said fullback Michael Robinson. “He’s better than he was when we played them on Oct. 18.”
Of course, one thing that hasn’t changed since then is San Francisco’s formidable defense, which ranks first in the NFC — just ahead of the Seahawks.
“They have Pro Bowlers all over defense,” Unger said. “It’s hell on wheels in the front 7, and they have a pretty good secondary, also. Every game in the NFL is insanely difficult, but when you have a team that went pretty far into the playoffs last year, and has an elite defense you’re playing against, it makes it that much harder. Especially as a division game. It’s going to be tough.”
Kaepernick offers a new wrinkle for Seattle’s defense, though Harbaugh noted Tuesday that the changes from Smith won’t be readily visible.
“I think it’s still the 49ers offense,” he said. “It’s just our offense.”
Perhaps, but Seahawks coach Pete Carroll noted some differences with Kaepernick.
“He’s giving them the spark they obviously really favor,” he said. “They’re loaded at that spot. The thing that really jumps out is that Colin has such a strong arm. He really can fire the ball down the field, and then when he gets out and runs, he can really go.
“(Kaepernick) is little more apt to run than Alex, but other than that it’s just two good guys running the offense.”
Some have wondered about the wisdom of benching a quarterback like Smith, who led the team to the NFC title game last year. He had a 104.1 quarterback rating, was completing 70 percent of his passes, and was coming off a near perfect against Arizona when a concussion opened the door for Kaepernick.
When it comes to second-guessing, “I don’t think he cares,” said Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman of Harbaugh, his coach at Stanford.
“He’s going to do what he thinks is best for his team to win ballgames. It’s been uberly successful for him right now.
“They’ve been still winning ballgames. He just won a prime-time game last week. Obviously, it looks like a great move right now.”
Sherman believes that with both teams still having much to play for, it will be another intense battle.
“Week 7 is a lot different than Week 15,” he said. “Just schematically, you’ve put in a lot more, you’ve seen a lot more looks, you’ve shown a lot more. You’re going to be less surprised by the things they do, and it’s going to be more straightforward will on will.”