Sunday’s primetime Battle in Seattle between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seahawks has the ingredients to be an historic launching point for what could remain one of hottest league rivalries over the next decade.
At stake Sunday night will be the title of Best in the West, as these NFC rivals each seek to solidify the postseason pecking order in the NFC.
San Francisco (10-3-1) can clinch the division title with a win and can lock up a first-round bye is Green Bay also loses. Seattle (9-5) will own a playoff spot with a victory.
These are mirror-image teams with aggressive defenses that rank 1-2 in stinginess, offenses with an entertaining mix of power running and imaginative passing, and special teams with big-play capability and the element of surprise -- each tried a fake punt last week.
Also, they are led by former college coaching rivals who still don’t like each other.
This game will be the first duel between two of the league’s most dynamic young quarterbacks -- Seattle’s sensational rookie Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s second-year surprise starter Colin Kaepernick, who displaced well-regarded veteran Alex Smith last month.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll acknowledges these similarities and even gives a nod to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh for having this like vision.
“I can’t help but see that,” Carroll said. “Because they believe in playing big-time defence, which we do. They believe in the running game, which we do. They have a very strong emphasis on special teams, which we do.
“I think that’s really the three pillars of what we’re trying to put together here. That’s what I know we’re dealing with. And I don’t know how they speak it or how Jim talks about it. But it’s certainly what’s obvious about their team when you have to line up against them.”
Carroll and Harbaugh have squared off six times as head coaches with Harbaugh owning a 5-1 advantage. For the first three meetings, Carroll was coaching Southern Cal and Harbaugh at Stanford. In 2007, the Harbaugh-coached Cardinal was a 41-point underdog when it stunned USC 24-23 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Harbaugh won all three of their meetings since his arrival in the NFL last year, including a 13-6 victory in San Francisco on October 18. But there have been dramatic changes since then. The Seahawks now feature a vastly improved Wilson and the 49ers start strong-armed, multi-talented Kaepernick instead of the steady Smith.
Wilson won four of his last five, is hot off a pair of 50-point outbursts, and is undefeated at CenturyLink Field (6-0), where his home passer rating is a league-best 118.4.
“Our trust in him has just skyrocketed in the last month,” Carroll acknowledged. “He’s ready and we try to utilize every way we can to make it hard on our opponents.”
He will need all the guile he can muster as he takes that two-game, 50-point streak against a San Francisco defense that allows the fewest points per game in the league -- 15.6 points per game -- and yielded a total of 40 points to Seattle in the past three meetings.
The 49ers’ stifling defence is led by the NFL’s best pair of inside linebackers, annual Pro Bowler Patrick Willis (110 tackles) and NaVorro Bowman (123 tackles). Second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith is tied for the league lead with 19.5 sacks, within reach of Michael Strahan’s season record of 22.5.
Wilson has completed 222 of 353 passes (63 per cent) for 2,693 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has also run 78 times for 402 yards, including 25 first downs and three touchdowns. In his last six games, he has 12 touchdowns and one interception and is 6-0 at home.
During their win over Buffalo last week and before that on several bursts into the open field against the Bears on Dec. 2, the Seahawks may have previewed how Wilson can use his multiple talents, and surprising maturity under pressure, to deal with the 49ers defence. Wilson used a series of read-option plays that featured his quickness with both analysis and feet. He had nine carries for 71 yards at Chicago and 9-92 with three touchdowns in the Buffalo beat down in Toronto.
He coyly deferred conversation on that this week, but such a run-pass threat could help neutralize the 49ers’ linebackers. Many teams spread their offence to get those linebackers in space, but even then the 49ers defenders show remarkable talents in one-on-one coverage.
To help tease or frustrate the 49ers defence, Wilson has relentless running back Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch (1,379 yards, ten touchdowns). The combination of Wilson, Lynch and the read option could be very interesting.
Kaepernick also uses the read option with the 49ers, much as he did in Nevada’s famed Pistol offence. Since taking over for Smith, who guided the 49ers to an overtime loss shy of the Super Bowl last season, Kaepernick has justified Harbaugh’s controversial move.
Last Sunday night, Kaepernick threw four touchdowns in New England and has completed 101 of 154 passes (65 percent) for 1,289 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He has run 53 times for 379 yards, including 17 first downs and five touchdowns, two of those scores from 50 yards out.
Like Wilson, Kaepernick’s biggest ally is a powerful runner, franchise rushing leader Frank Gore, who has 1,118 yards and seven touchdowns this season. San Francisco has great receivers in tight end Vernon Davis and well-traveled Randy Moss, but cat-like Michael Crabtree has emerged as Kaepernick’s top target. Crabtree has 73 catches for 868 yards and seven touchdowns, including two scored at New England.
Crabtree could find himself matched against Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman pending the latter’s league review of a PED suspension. Harbaugh recruited Sherman to Stanford as a wide receiver but agreed with Sherman that defense suited the athlete better and moved him to the secondary in college.
Carroll obviously approved of the move and drafted Sherman in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. But these two coaches didn’t discuss Sherman first.
“Yeah, well,” mused Harbaugh when asked about his relationship with Carroll. “He doesn’t send me holiday cards. And, no, I don’t send any to him.”