To be the best, you have to beat the best. That’s likely how the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks view the upcoming title matchup, a game that decides who represents the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
If you were to ask 'Hawks wideout Doug Baldwin, he’d tell you he “wouldn’t want it any other way.” His teammates would probably echo that exact sentiment. San Francisco guard Alex Boone told Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, “I don’t know anybody in here that likes anybody on the Seahawks. If you find one, let me know.”
Clearly these two harbor feelings toward one another.
As the Seahawks awaited their opponent, obviously the NFC West champs knew hosting the Carolina Panthers would not have meant nearly as much. They wanted the Niners. And as the moment draws near, it’s becoming more evident that San Francisco and Seattle are itching to take a piece out of each other.
A third meeting of the season, and one in this fashion, only seemed appropriate.
Moreover, this could be the most evenly matched, violent, and entertaining brawl yet. For obvious reasons, it's the most monumental game in their shared history. And wouldn't you know it, according to David Fucillo of Niners Nation, this weekend's title game is also their 31st versus each other, with the series tied at 15 all.
This will be the tiebreaker—and what a classic battle it is set to be.
But how did we get here?
From the Pac-12 to the NFC West
We might as well start at the beginning.
Outside the competitive level and geographical proximity of the teams, the reason this rivalry has so much juice is because the two patriarchs of it—coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll—have a long-standing history going back to their spirited days in the NCAA.
Sure, the 'Hawks and 49ers shared the division and weren’t exactly fond of each other, but the arrival of Harbaugh and Carroll, in 2011 and 2010 respectively, increased it tenfold. There is no debating it. Seattle and San Francisco didn’t have too much to fight over when they were middle-of-the-road teams, peddling .500 records.
The division tension had existed since 2002, but without the ability to perform or anything to fight for, it wasn’t much of a grudge match.
They were never contenders at the same time. The Niners were winding down from their two-decade-long dynasty, while Seattle had briefly caught lightning in a bottle with an offensive backfield made of Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander, along with a competent defense.
The playing field was never equal. So, again, outside the talent, Harbaugh and Carroll have everything to do with this.
And with their background, it couldn’t have been scripted better. The fiery nature—which is as natural as any type of chemistry you’ve ever seen, negative or not—is very real between them. It gives this feud a little extra mystique to it. And it all stems from the coaches.
They’re the ones who brought it here from Stanford and USC.
And as a result, you see the 49ers and Seahawks players now have something to play for. They charge harder, block longer, jaw more and play for pride.
For anybody truly tracing the origin of the rivalry, most will land on the antagonistic-toned exchange that took place back in 2009; the last time they competed at the college level. The renowned “What’s your deal?” postgame altercation between Harbaugh and Carroll was arguably the original spark that lit the fire between them.
At one point in that game, Harbaugh, up 48-21, had gone for a two-point conversion.
Even though the attempt was unsuccessful, the act itself did not sit well with Carroll, hence the uncomfortable handshake following the game. Most will now argue that this confrontation is the tangible energy at the nucleus of the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry, now spider-webbing out to the players. As players' coaches, they've been able to get their guys to buy in to this strife.
And it's reflective in their effort.
Pro Football Reference
Counting the former Pac-12 division and the NFC West, Harbaugh's teams are 6-3 against Carroll’s teams. The 49ers head coach is also 4-2 against Carroll in the NFL.
When asked if this was the best rivalry in sports today, NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland said, “It’s getting there, but it’s not quite there yet.”
“For this to be the best rivalry in all of sports, the 49ers have to play better when they travel to the Pacific Northwest. Great rivalries are always close games no matter where the game is being played.”
This is very true. Although Harbaugh has maintained a lead on Carroll, one thing to consider is the last two trips to Seattle have dramatically favored the ‘Hawks, who have won by a margin of 71-16. In fact, it's Harbaugh's only two losses against them.
So, to Langland’s point: While this rivalry has grown immensely, the Niners must prove that they are a threat to go win up at CenturyLink Field for it to take another step forward.
Kaepernick has struggled against Seattle in his career. He is 1-2 as a starter vs SEA, compared to 20-5 vs all others pic.twitter.com/e9rINCkkwq— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2014
Fun Fact: Pete Carroll’s first win came against the 49ers in 2010, while Jim Harbaugh’s first win came against the Seahawks in 2011, via Christian Gin of Examiner.com.
Arms Race, Poaching Each Other’s Players
One of the reasons this rivalry has been kicked up a notch is because they have interfered with each other's team-building.
It began in Pete Carroll’s first year with the Seahawks, when former 49ers GM Scot McCloughan and tailback Michael Robinson were picked off and brought into Seattle to be the team’s new senior personnel executive and fullback. They have both endured the test of time so far, leaving their fingerprint on the club.
We won’t bother including former first-round pick Kentwan Balmer, the defensive lineman from North Carolina, but he wound up in teal, too.
All in all, this was Carroll’s one-year head start on Harbaugh, and it didn’t end there. Once the quarterback guru from Stanford University was hired in San Francisco, you could say Carroll felt the heat even more. Aggressive moves continued, and plenty left breadcrumbs leading back to San Francisco.
It was the beginning of the arms race.
Still, the Seattle coach did not hesitate to make waves and pick up the feud where it left off. In what was Harbaugh’s inaugural NFL draft in 2011—which was a very solid class—the 49ers new head coach decided to pass on his former pupil Richard Sherman for South Carolina cornerback Chris Culliver, who played the same position.
Subsequently, Carroll drafted the Stanford defensive back 74 picks later in Round 5.
And the rest is history.
It carried on from there, too. But this offseason was perhaps the most intensified front office battle we’ve witnessed yet. The shocker was when the 'Hawks traded a first-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for wide receiver Percy Harvin, who had entered the MVP talk the year prior.
Knowing they have to score on this defense, it’s no surprise they went out on a limb to acquire a weapon like Harvin.
Seattle also anteed up by signing an excess of defensive ends in Michael Bennett (Buccaneers) and Cliff Avril (Lions), both of whom played against the 49ers in the past two years. They did not have a great deal of success, but it’s an interesting coincidence nonetheless. There was game film on them against the Niners.
San Francisco took notice and responded accordingly, but not too overboard.
If you really look at it, the 49ers' tactics since 2011 have become a little more aggressive, particularly if you consider their approach to the draft. They’ve also spent more on a second wide receiver each year, going from Braylon Edwards to Randy Moss, before taking a sizable leap to a $6 million figure for Anquan Boldin.
The teams also play tug-of-war during the season.
The 49ers and Hawks went back and forth on rookie Chris Harper, a wide receiver from Kansas State. He is now on the Green Bay Packers roster. Wideout Ricardo Lockette is another pass-catcher that was caught in the middle of these two teams, and now resides on Seattle’s 53-man roster.
When the Niners were playing cornerback roulette this year, Perrish Cox also wound up in a Seahawks uniform briefly this year before heading back to San Francisco.
Then, of course, backup quarterback B.J. Daniels now finds himself situated on the 'Hawks roster. For a while there, this exciting young prospect from South Florida—and Russell Wilson replica—was a player the team was reluctant to waive. But the moment the 49ers made a shift at the position, Seattle went ahead and scooped him up.
It’s been nonstop, and it’s even leaked into each other’s draft plans, perhaps incidentally.
According to Mike Sando of ESPN, Seattle also may have had eyes for Rice tight end Vance McDonald in the second round. But San Francisco crept up six spots and took him, prompting the Seahawks to trade back and take McDonald’s college teammate Luke Willson in a later round.
Looking for the same type of players, it’s no wonder that they’ve developed near-identical mechanisms and there’s overlap when it comes to making acquisitions.
As Langland summarizes, “Both coaches have built their respective teams to play the style of football they believe in. And coincidentally enough, the 49ers and Seahawks play a similar style of football.”
Add in that they’re both efficient at evaluating and building, and it’s no wonder they pick off each other’s players whenever possible.
Richard Sherman calls Jim Harbaugh a "bully" http://t.co/R1RloOLd— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 25, 2012
Taking Jabs at Each Other
What's a feud without a couple of cheap shots here and there, and kicking each other while they're down?
The 49ers and Seahawks have both seized their opportunities at times.
You could argue that the 'Hawks have been most vulnerable to criticism. Since Pete Carroll took over the squad in 2010, several Seattle players have been suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. There have been 10 total infractions by eight players:
Defensive skipper Richard Sherman was also faced with a suspension this season, which he avoided, but later stated “half the league takes Adderall,” via Brian McIntyre of Yahoo! Sports. This was not a very noble argument, especially for an individual trying to prove that he did not take a substance.
But at this point, it’s happened so often that it’s become synonymous with the culture in Seattle.
Roughly 800 miles south, Jim Harbaugh confirmed that he “definitely noticed” the wave of Seahawks suspensions. And when asked to respond to the situation, he emphasized that players should abide by the rules, citing that foreign substances have no place in an athlete’s body.
And as far as his own team goes, Harbaugh made it clear to the media that he wants his players to be “above reproach.”
“If you cheat to win, then you’ve already lost,” said the coach, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Obviously this drew the ire of several Seahawks players, specifically defensive back Brandon Browner, who is the team’s most disreputable offender. It’s the reason he won’t be part of this weekend’s game.
In his original response, Browner loosely threatened physical harm upon the 49ers head coach, via ESPN:
At the end of the day we gotta win football games. He's a coach. He's never gonna be out there lined up against me. I wish he would; I'd put my hands around his neck. At the end of the day, I'm about winning football games.
Representatives of both organizations constantly talk about how they don’t care for one another. While a bit on the extreme side, this is a fair example of the weekly media interface that progressively ramps up the rivalry.
It’s like a game of telephone that always goes too far.
And typically it gets worse when one party is drawing national media attention for the wrong reasons. Not to mention the two or three weeks a year they gear up to play each other. While the respect for one another is there, more often than not, all they hear is the condescending tone.
An Unmistakable Likeness
"We don't like them, they don't like us. I don't have a magic answer for why it's so intense, it just is. It's a physical game every time we play, and there's just a lot of bad blood there." – Joe Staley, 49ers left tackle
Every time these two clash, it’s a textbook representation of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
We touched on how these teams were built, and it’s physical, but it’s as much about pride and intimidation as anything. They both take honor in those values, which is why there is such extreme friction when they meet. Each operates with a never-say-die attitude while bringing the size to back it up.
You don’t see that in every team, especially to this extent.
They’re both striving to be the best team in pro football, and they’re tapping the very same smash-mouth philosophy in their attempt to achieve it. So, naturally, when these similarly modeled teams convene, it’s a war.
Normally, what do you think influences Seattle and San Francisco's performances versus each other on game day more?
And again, fueling it has been their wily, energetic coaches.
You could argue the biggest impact Harbaugh and Carroll had on the 49ers and Seahawks is they taught their respective teams to finish.
“When a coach wins over the locker room, the players will buy into whatever he sells,” said Tyson Langland, summing up the new-found drive by these players. The competitiveness begins with the coaches but it’s channeled through the players, which are two of the bigger and more brutish rosters in the National Football League.
It’s quite a blend.
Even the players don’t hesitate to admit that the identical nature and high level of talent across the board makes it a bit personal. Leading up to this weekend's game, San Francisco safety Donte Whitner told USA Today, “There are just so many positions on the field where you want to go out there and be better than the opposition.
"A lot of people don't say that,” Whitner said. “But you really do.”
So, altogether, both sides have the motivation and the physical prowess to make this a fistfight.
“Players from the Seahawks and 49ers have decided to partake in the feud, because they believe in their head coaches. It’s as simple as that,” Langland said. “The Seahawks carry themselves a certain way and so do the 49ers. No one team wants to be outmuscled by the opposition, especially when it’s its biggest rival."
Carroll: "I think there's a fundamental approach to football that we (Seahawks & 49ers) share. Play tough." #NFCChampionship— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) January 14, 2014
Since their simultaneous resurgence from the NFL’s cellar, these two have ruthlessly been at each other’s throats. You'd be hard-pressed to find two teams in any sport more fixated on one another right now. And during the progression of their rivalry, there have been some unique twists and turns thrown in.
With the different branches of personal history, chippy games and offseason interaction, it’s led to a very deep-seated animosity.
This is not just because they are directly obstructing each other’s goals, but as carbon copies of each other, both are eager to prove they’re the better version. And the way they do that is by competing hard in this series, dishing out physical punishment and winning football games.
Each week, it’s done with hard-nosed running, tough-as-nails defense and outfoxing the opponent.
And while the disdain appears to run deep, at the end of the day, there is a special place reserved for respect here. Both teams have the appreciation that it’ll be more validating for whomever emerges victorious.
As each other's fiercest opponents, there is also the mutual understanding that they both deserve to be there.
Just three years into their resurgent feud, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are sitting on one of the best rivalries in sports today. And one way or another, Sunday's NFC Championship Game will officially mark the next chapter and signify a leap forward in this division- and conference-wide power struggle.
Jim Harbaugh is first coach in NFL history to take his team to AFC/NFC Championship Game in each of his first 3 seasons, via Elias SB.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 13, 2014
Special thanks to NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland for direct quotes. News, articles provided by ESPN, unless specified otherwise.