SEATTLE (AP) — The decision to part with Richard Sherman — along with several other impact veterans — was supposed to be part of the cumulative reason the Seattle Seahawks would finally take a step back. This was going to be the rebuild season, even if no one with the Seahawks ever wanted to use that word.
Sherman will see his former team up close Sunday when the San Francisco 49ers face the Seahawks. He will find a Seattle team that’s not backsliding. Instead, Seattle (6-5) has won two straight and has a direct path to an NFC playoff berth in a season no one really expected the Seahawks to be in the conversation at the beginning of December.
The players who stepped in for the likes of Sherman and other veterans who departed after last season have brought a youthful exuberance. That has created a fun environment in Seattle only amplified by the Seahawks’ success.
“This game is too crazy to not have fun and it’s definitely a point of emphasis for me, just for the guys that came in and were stepping into a lot of key positions, to not worry about who they were replacing or who you were coming behind, “ Seattle star linebacker Bobby Wagner said, “but just to have the fun you’ve been having all your life and everything else will figure out itself.”
Fun has come around sparingly in San Francisco this season. The 49ers (2-9) were supposed to be in Seattle’s position of competing for a playoff spot. But injuries — namely the loss of QB Jimmy Garoppolo — derailed those hopes early in the season. They looked great in thumping Oakland on Nov. 1, only to turn around and drop their next two against the weak Giants and Buccaneers.
“I do think we’re going through this for a reason. I do think it can make us better,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “A lot of guys have gotten to play a lot that normally wouldn’t be able to play, and I hope that helps us find some things out about people this year and helps us build this team better next year.”
Welcoming Sherman back to Seattle starts a stretch of four of the final five games at home for the Seahawks. They’ve been a notoriously good team in the final month of the calendar, and getting to play at home is adding to the belief this season could end in an unexpected playoff berth.
Here’s what else to watch as the Seahawks and 49ers meet for the first of two games in 14 days:
RISING RUSSELL: Seattle QB Russell Wilson is coming off his best performance of the season against Carolina. With Seattle’s running game shut down by the Panthers, Wilson threw for a season-high 339 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the 30-27 win, showing that Seattle’s offense can function just fine when its ground game is stymied. The Seahawks have been the best run team in the NFL for most of the season, but Wilson’s performance was a reminder he can be an elite passer when needed.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: The 49ers handed Fred Warner big responsibility when they inserted him at middle linebacker and made him the defensive play caller as a rookie. Warner’s role will only get bigger after San Francisco released second-year linebacker Reuben Foster following his arrest last weekend on domestic violence charges. Warner has been one of the bright spots with his ability to get the defense in the right calls and thrive against both the run and pass. He will have a tough test this week against Wilson.
“He’s a mobile quarterback, so being able to escape the pocket and make big plays with his legs, that’s what he’s known for,” Warner said. “We have to be aware of that.”
TURNOVER TIME: Seattle got its first turnover in three-plus games last week when Bradley McDougald made an acrobatic end zone interception of Cam Newton. The Seahawks also forced five fumbles against the Panthers, but failed to recover any. It was a long drought that saw Seattle drop to 11th in the league with 17 turnovers forced.
That’s nothing compared to the 49ers. San Francisco is last in the NFL with just five takeaways. The Niners have just two interceptions and haven’t forced a turnover in the last three games.
HOUSE OF HORRORS: Playing in Seattle has led only to disappointment for the 49ers in recent years. The Niners have lost their last seven trips, including the 2013 NFC title game, getting outscored by more than 15 points per game. San Francisco’s last win here came in 2011 with Alex Smith at quarterback. Since then, Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert and Brian Hoyer have combined for 10 turnovers, 16 sacks, three TD passes and a 61.4 passer rating in Seattle.
First-year QB Nick Mullens will try to reverse that trend and bounce back from two rough starts following a sterling debut. Mullens has thrown four interceptions the past two games in losses to the Giants and Tampa Bay and faces a much tougher defense this week.