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How Seahawks stack up: Can Seattle dethrone 49ers for NFC West title?

The 49ers' defense, which includes Nick Bosa, ranked second in the NFL in 2019. (Getty)

For a while there, one of the best rivalries in the NFL – the Seahawks and 49ers – became a one-sided snooze-fest.

Instant Reaction: 710 ESPN Seattle on Seahawks’ trade for Jamal Adams

The culmination of that rivalry – though you wouldn’t have known it at the time – was a tipped pass. You already know the story: with 30 seconds remaining in the 2013 NFC Championship game, a pass from 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick met the outstretched fingers of leaping Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, and the ball was deflected and intercepted by Seattle’s Malcolm Smith in the end zone.

The Seahawks went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII and have remained a contender in the years since, only once slipping below double-digit wins to miss the postseason. Meanwhile, the 49ers sank to the bottom of the league. San Francisco finished 8-8 in the season following that conference championship loss and finished fourth in the division for three consecutive seasons after that.

For all the heartbreak and frustration 49ers fans felt in those years, though, that suffering paid off in the form of cap space and high draft picks. First-round picks alone won’t turn a team into a contender (looking at you, Cleveland Browns) but it was certainly part of a winning formula for general manager John Lynch. That formula also included trading for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, hiring ex-Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as head coach, and acquiring a handful of key free agent veterans.

Now it’s the 49ers who are at the top looking down at a trio of teams vying to steal the division title. Can the Seahawks do it in 2020?

What Seahawks fans need to know about 49ers

Head coach: Kyle Shanahan
Offensive coordinator: Mike LaFleur (passing game coordinator), Mike McDaniel (run game coordinator)
Defensive coordinator: Robert Saleh
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo
2019 record: 13-3 (First in NFC West; Lost to Chiefs 31-20 in Super Bowl)

Just one year after San Francisco’s defense set an NFL record for fewest interceptions in a season (two), the 49ers fielded the league’s No. 2 total defense. Quarterbacks averaged just 169.2 yards per game (fewest in the league) and offenses averaged 281.8 total yards per game. Only the New England Patriots managed to hold teams to fewer yards.

That wasn’t just because of a talented secondary led by – in a twist of irony – Richard Sherman. The 49ers also boast one of the league’s best pass rushing units. Nick Bosa, the 2019 second-overall draft pick, set the rookie record for most pressures in a season (80) according to Pro Football Focus, while Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner combined for 17.5 sacks. The team traded Buckner to Indianapolis for the 13th overall pick this year but made up for it with the first-round selection of South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw.

On the other side of the ball, San Francisco fielded the No. 4 total offense and No. 2 rushing offense (ranked behind only MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens). Tight end George Kittle earned his second Pro Bowl and first All-Pro nod after a second consecutive 1,000-plus yard season. Speedy rookie receiver Deebo Samuel finished with 802 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile the running back trio of Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, and Tevin Coleman split carries to combine for 1,939 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns.

The final verdict

There’s always some regression expected for top teams – because that’s the way the NFL is built – but the 49ers are the most complete team in the division. So when my Tom, Jake and Stacy co-host Tom Wassell asked me whether the Seahawks have the best roster in the NFC West, my answer was no – at least not on paper. The battle for the crown in the NFC West will be hard-fought, but if the Seahawks want it, it’s the 49ers they’ll have to overcome.

It’s not an impossible feat. San Francisco will have its share of challenges. Samuel is expected to miss 10-12 weeks with a Jones fracture, while Mostert has requested a trade. If there’s regression on defense or the team enters the season without its leading rusher, they’ll need to see more from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

On top of that, San Francisco will have to avoid the Super Bowl loss hangover.

I can hear the argument against this now: The Seahawks were inches from the NFC West title last year in Week 17. Who’s to say they can’t win it this year?

They can absolutely win it this year, but there’s an important takeaway I had from the Seahawks’ finale against the 49ers: Those few inches aren’t what separate the two teams. By Week 17, Seattle just didn’t have the depth the 49ers did. The Seahawks were looking at a postseason run with an injured left tackle – their best offensive lineman, Duane Brown – and an injured Jadeveon Clowney, and their top three running backs had just joined their starting tight end and center as out for the season.

One of the marks of a great rivalry is that it always comes down to a few inches, a few seconds, or a single play. But to make the division title sweeter, the Seahawks need to cement what happens afterward. The defense got a big boost Saturday with the trade for All-Pro safety Jamal Adams, but they’ll need a better pass rush. They’ll need more protection for Russell Wilson. They’ll need healthy running backs. That’s the difference between last year’s Seahawks team and the one they can be in 2020.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Stacy Rost on Twitter.

Also from Stacy’s Seahawks NFC West preview series

How Seahawks stack up: Los Angeles Rams may be the sleeping giant
How Seahawks stack up: Arizona Cardinals could be a Cinderella story