Finally, we have arrived at the eve of battle. Sunday night, the San Francisco 49ers will meet the Seattle Seahawks on the field of Qwest in a highly anticipated Sunday Night Football clash between two teams who are clearly not just the best in the NFC West, but also in the entire league.
This rivalry goes beyond divisional tensions. It is a battle between teams that have been built-in the same image, by two coaches who could not be more similar.
Both teams have punishing defenses, with Seattle finishing last season atop the NFL and San Francisco right behind them.
Both have young, dual-threat quarterbacks, Russel Wilson of Seattle and Colin Kaepernick of the Niners, that were looked over in their respective drafts but proved the naysayers wrong when they got the opportunity to take the field.
Both have bruising running games with powerful and young offensive lines.
Both have coaches who left the Pac-10 to take over franchises who were struggling at the time of their hiring and quickly turned their teams around. Pete Carroll left 9-4 USC for the 5-11 Seahawks, and proceeded to lead them to a 7-9 record and an NFC West title. Jim Harbaugh left Stanford after four years, having taken them from the depths of a 4-8 record to a 12-1 mark and an Orange Bowl win. Harbaugh also led the Cardinal to a shocking 24-23 win over Carroll’s Trojans, who had been 41 point favorites. He left for the Niners, who he promptly directed to a 13-3 record and came within a field goal of an NFC title. Both turnarounds, combined with the improvement of the Cardinals and Rams, propelled the NFC West from the laughingstock of the NFL to perhaps the league’s best divisions.
The rivalry is not only fueled by the similarities of the two teams, but also by the animosity between the two coaches. After Harbaugh’s Cardinal stunned the mighty men of Troy in 2007, who won two national titles under Carroll, he returned to Los Angeles in 2009 and dominated USC 55-21. After the game, Carroll was clearly under the impression Harbaugh had run up the score and was heard asking him “what’s your deal?”
The tension between the two coaches has not simmered since, and Sunday nights game will surely be evidence of that. Last season, the Niners won at Candlestick 13-6, but then went to Seattle in week 16 after an emotional win in New England and got thrashed, 42-13. In that game, the 49ers had a chance to make the score 14-3, but a David Akers field goal was blocked and Richard Sherman returned it for six and a 21-0 lead. From there the game spiraled out of the Niner’s reach.
But a few weeks later, it was the Niners that were in the Super Bowl, and they came within five yards of earning a Lombardi Trophy.
Now Seattle wants it’s turn to represent the NFC in the big game. But the Niners, scarred by last February’s devastating loss on the games biggest stage, want a chance to win it all and redeem themselves just as badly.
The desire to reach the highest peak of the NFL mountain will be evident from both teams Sunday night. This game will send a message to the rest of the NFL: the road to the Super Bowl will go through San Francisco or Seattle, and it would be a safe bet that they will be the last teams standing in the NFC.
In fact, the only thing that will be more clear is how badly each team, and each coach, wants to beat the other.