Swept Under The Turf: NFC Championship Game Edition

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A look at just how evenly matched the two NFC mega-powers really are against common opponents.

Mentioned all the time: Seahawks and 49ers split the season series! This year, and last!

Mentioned all the time: Niners won the close games at home in '12 and and '13; Hawks have won blowouts here the last two years.

Mentioned all the time: Wilson vs. Kaepernick subplot. The Hawk's overall numbers are better, and Jason's superb postcovers this topic... superbly.

Not mentioned all the time: what does the team's body of work against common opponents show us? And does that mean anything for Sunday? (Assuming that Sunday ever arrives, because this interminable week has already lasted longer than most months.)

The research

I love mining a season, or a career, or a franchise history, for the buried stat. Isolating the Niners' and Hawks' recently completed seasons to just the 12 games against shared foes (four NFCW, four AFCS and four NFCS) yields some pretty nifty treasure.

Table 1a: Point Differential


PF PA Advantage Who?
Seahawks 324 182 ...
Forty-Niners 323 192 neither

Fine, let's take it game by game, then.

Table 2a: Weekly, Not Weakly Results

Bad Guys' Result Opponent Good Guys' Result Advantage Who?
W, 33-14 Buccaneers W, 27-24 49ers
W, 23-20 at Cardinals W, 34-22 Hawks
W, 32-20 vs. Cardinals L, 10-17 49ers
L, 7-27 Colts L, 28-34 Hawks
W, 34-24 Falcons W, 33-10 Hawks
W, 42-10 Jags go "Ow, ow ow" W-45-17 push
L, 9-10 Panthers W, 12-7 Hawks
W, 35-11 at Rams W, 14-9 49ers
W, 23-13 vs. Rams W, 27-9 push
L, 20-23 Saints W, 34-7 Hawks!
W, 34-3 Texans W, 23-20 49ers
W, 31-17 Titans W, 20-13 49ers
Total "advantage": -------------> 5-5-2, push

It's an extremely even slate of team performances, when you set the results side by side. (Note: the Hawks are awarded a clear advantage for their road performance vs. Colts even though it was a loss; the 49ers are awarded a clear advantage for their prettier win vs. Houston even though they had home field and the Hawks did not.)

Next, the running attacks have performed at equally high levels against common foes.

Table 3a: Beastly Run Games

Touches Total Yards Touchdowns
Lynch 245 1183 6
Turbin 59 217 0 :(
Gore 228 1040 8
Hunter 61 313 3
Those 2 Niners 289 1353 11
Those 2 Hawks 304 1400 6

The two squads ran over the rest of the league at the same pace. Receptions are included in touches. Once again, evenly matched teams: while the Niners scored more times with their running weapons, the Hawks' backs made more plays through the air.

(Note: adding in the QB's running stats makes only a negligible difference, as RW netted 440 yards and CK posted 364 in the same 12 games.)

A final comparison, then -- turnovers. You'll be unsurprised at the similarity, again.

Table 4a: Takeaway Time

Turnovers forced Turnover margin
49ers 25 +14
Seahawks 24 +8

And this means... what? Hmmmmmm

If there are any good conclusions to be drawn from the above data, they're not obvious. What we're seeing here is that both teams owned the rest of the NFL -- with the two teams generating points, preventing points, and running the ball with the same amount of success against common opponents while coming out way ahead in the takeaway department.

They rule the league in the same way, basically.

Digging a little deeper only further equalizes the teams. Even their special teams are both highly ranked. For the 2013 season, Football Outsiders places Seattle 5th and San Fran 7th in ST DVOA, only to flip them in weighted DVOA with the Niners fifth and the Hawks sixth.

Expand the categories, then! Well, the most superficial research shows us that the 49ers win in a comparison of O-line; meanwhile, fifteen seconds on pro-football-reference.com, and our eyes, teach us that Russell Wilson wins in a comparison of quarterbacks. If you figure that the superior offensive line helps the Niners impose their will on opponents, and the superior play of Wilson allows the Hawks to make more plays out of challenging circumstances, then another stalemate is reached.

So what -- both teams are really good? Like, the same amount? That's some deep #analysis! Stop the pixels!

Well, if they beat up the league in exactly the same way, when they're not playing each other, then the tie-breaker has to be head-to-head performance. Let's try this: how about all the same stats, the matchy-matchy ones from above, only now culled from the 2012 and 2013 rivalry games. Maybe then a conclusion will materialize.

Table 1b: Points Is The Only Stat That Matters You Nerdz

Hawks Niners
Games in Seattle 71 16
Games in San Fran 20 32
Total 91 48

Table 2b would be super, but superfluous. Each team is 2-0 at home. Onward.

Table 3b: Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink, Say No Gore

Hawks' Touches-Yds-TD Niners' Touches-Yds-TD
Home performance 74-354-5 49-337-0
Road performance 46-207-1 21-67-0
Total 120-561-6 70-404-0

Not much to see from the Niners once they leave Candlestick. The Hawks travel pretty well though.

Table 4b: What I Got You Got To Give It To Your Sherman

Turnovers Hawks Niners
Games in Seattle 2 7!
Games in San Fran 2 2
Total 4 9

Verdict: every advantage that was previously shared now points decisively to Seattle.

A summary does present itself after all

It's fun to conclude that these two teams are just as talented, because they spend most of their season destroying common opponents. But when they are playing each other, one team is clearly better than the other in the same categories that show their league-wide dominance. This holds true even when each team is given two home games to account for home-field advantage.

So, even if the game were played on a neutral field, the Seahawks would be favored.

But it's not.

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