The Super Bowl is being held two weeks early this season.
Not really, of course. They'll still hold the annual week-long, bajillion-dollar festival of pro football while the calendar changes from January to February.
The best game of the postseason, though? The one that features the matchup everyone's been waiting to see, the one that will arguably determine who the best team in the NFL is? That game will be played at CenturyLink Field on January 19.
In just the past three seasons, the rivalry between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers has become the best in the NFL. Not the longest, nor the greatest but the best. Not only are these two great teams with two great coaches and two of the NFL's most exciting quarterbacks, they both play exciting, explosive, hard-hitting, big-play football.
The Seahawks and 49ers are division rivals who play at least twice a year—and best of all, they can't stand each other.
Fans and media use the word "rivalry" quite a bit; in today's fast-changing NFL, that word usually describes ancient animosity between fans. Plenty of players, coaches and executives from a given NFL team will have ties to its rival's sideline; it's common to see a game hyped as a blood feud become a hugs-and-handshakes family reunion when the game clock shows four zeroes.
That won't happen at the NFC Championship Game.
"I don't know anybody in here that likes anybody on the Seahawks. If you find one, you let me know," 49ers guard Alex Boone told Lindsay H. Jones of USA TODAY Sports.
These two teams truly don't like each other, and they're playing for stakes that couldn't be higher. One of them will go on to the Super Bowl and own bragging rights for the next eight months. The other will be going home, wondering how they came so close and lost to them.
It Starts at the Top
As Doug Farrar wrote for Yahoo! Sports, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh had beef back in 2009, when both were still coaching college ball. Harbaugh's Stanford team had run up the score on Carroll's USC squad to the tune of 48-21—and then Harbaugh went for a two-point conversion.
At the post-game handshake, the two exchanged niceties:
That said, Carroll told Farrar lots of complimentary things about Harbaugh just before he was hired in San Francisco; it's clear the two men have great respect for the way the other coaches, if not each other.
Of course, since they've put together teams that are all but mirror images of each other, it shouldn't surprise that they appreciate each other's handiwork.
Both teams have nasty defensive front sevens that get after the quarterback and swaggering coverage units that pride themselves on big plays and bigger hits.
Both teams chew up ground with old-school workhorse power backs: Frank Gore in San Francisco and Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. They then come over the top with explosive dual-threat quarterbacks: the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson.
What's that saying about familiarity and contempt?
Three Years of Season-Shaping Games
A real rivalry game is one that means more to the players on the field than the fans in the stands; nothing breeds a true, blood-spattered, spittle-flecked rivalry like when two teams play a lot of high-stakes games in a short time.
Back in Week 16 of the 2011 season, the 49ers were 11-3 and on their way to the first of three straight NFC Championship Game appearances. The Seahawks were 7-7, on their way to a losing record.
Yet when the 49ers came to CenturyLink Field (then called Qwest Field), the Seahawks gave the 49ers all they could handle. Down 19-17 with just over a minute left, driving for a game-winning field goal, Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was stripped of the ball by 49ers linebacker Larry Grant, and that was it for the Seahawks' postseason hopes.
"We can play with anybody," Carroll told Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times in the aftermath. "I don't care who it is or where it is. We can play anybody."
When Carroll drafted Wilson to replace Jackson the following April, that hollow boast became rock solid.
In 2012, the 49ers were expected to maintain their hold on the NFC West, but the Seahawks immediately rose to challenge them. They met in Week 7, with both teams at 4-2.
It was trench warfare; a bruising, bloody ground battle. Both teams attempted just 23 passes apiece, per Pro Football Reference, and ran a combined 61 times. The young quarterbacks were kept under wraps: Rookie Wilson completed only nine passes for 122 yards, and second-year understudy Kaepernick watched then-started Alex Smith complete 14 for 140.
Between the two teams, they scored just four field goals and one touchdown. The 49ers won the game, and a crucial edge in the division, 13-6.
The trip to CenturyLink in Week 16 was a rude awakening for the 49ers. They were on a 5-1-1 tear after the first game—primarily with Kaepernick under center. The 9-5 Seahawks had a chance to clinch a playoff berth against the 49ers, though, and they capitalized in style. Their 42-13 blowout win was a three-phase-of-the-game beatdown, including a 90-yard blocked field goal return for a touchdown by All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
Sherman, in fact, urged Carroll to settle his long-standing score against Harbaugh.
"I'm not gonna lie to you," Sherman told Yahoo!'s Michael Silver, "I told Pete, 'Let's score and go for two.' He said, 'We have more class than that'."
Class? Possibly. NFC West title? Nope.
The 49ers retained the division crown at 11-4-1, finishing a half-game ahead of the 11-5 Seahawks. The seeding was right for an NFC Championship Game rubber match; if both teams won out they'd fight for the right to party in New Orleans. In the Divisional Round, though, the Seahawks' furious late-game rally wasn't enough to beat the Atlanta Falcons.
The 49ers beat the Falcons and went on to play in the Super Bowl as 3.5-point favorites, per Bet Online (via Bleacher Report). When the Ravens upset them 34-31, they became a popular pick to return to the Super Bowl in 2014—and win.
The Arms Race
Thanks in part to trading away Smith, the 49ers had an impressive stockpile of draft picks in the 2013 draft. Thanks in part to clever cap management, the Seahawks were one of free agency's biggest spenders. Both teams, already two of the deepest in the NFL, set about getting younger, faster and deeper still.
The offseason arms race was like the decades-long Cold War between the United States and the USSR—except in this rivalry, the bombs were guaranteed to drop at least twice in 2013.
Seattle swung a blockbuster trade for explosive wideout Percy Harvin, sending its 2013 first-round draft pick, among others, to Minnesota. Then, the Seahawks signed two of the best pass-rushers available in free agency: Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. In 2013, per Pro Football Reference, the duo has combined for 16.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, five passes defensed and three fumble recoveries—including one for a touchdown.
The 49ers were quieter in free agency, primarily adding nose tackle Glenn Dorsey, but made a big splash in the draft. They got an A-minus grade from me, signing an instant-impact defender in safety Eric Reid and pass-rusher Corey Lemonier, who's flashed in what little playing time he's carved out of the stacked 49ers front seven.
San Francisco also swung a receiver trade of its own, snagging Anquan Boldin from the Ravens not long after he gave them fits in Super Bowl XLVII.
As I said in Bleacher Report's preseason Super Bowl roundtable, I flipped coins to find an edge between these two teams all offseason long. Ultimately, the difference between them was not what they gained, but what they lost: their star receivers.
With Harvin missing the entire regular season with a hip injury and breakout 49ers star Michael Crabtree missing much of it with a late-August Achilles injury, the difference was clear: Harvin was a bonus, a fearsome new weapon added to an already-explosive offense; Crabtree was the clear No. 1 receiver in San Francisco.
The Tables Turned, the Stage Set
Replacing Crabtree with Boldin was a great move—especially for the bargain price of a sixth-round pick—but the loss of Crabtree's vertical threat was obvious. The 49ers were a different team without him.
They went 7-4 over their first 11 games, including another embarrassing blowout loss at CenturyLink. The Seahawks won 29-3, picking off Kaepernick three times, per Pro Football Reference, and holding him to just 127 yards passing.
The Seahawks, boasting the NFL's best scoring defense, would go on to notch a 13-3 record, claim the NFC West crown for themselves, earn the NFC's No. 1 seed, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Since Crabtree returned Dec. 1, though, the 49ers are back to their old selves. They're on a 7-0 tear, including a gutty 19-17 revenge win over the Seahawks, and finished 12-4—just one game behind Seattle.
Beating the Green Bay Packers in a brutally cold Lambeau Field and the Carolina Panthers in sunny Carolina in back-to-back weeks means the 49ers truly can beat anybody anywhere. But can they, as they haven't done since Tarvaris Jackson coughed it up, beat the Seahawks in Seattle—or even come close?
Now, the football-watching world is finally getting the game that seemed fated to happen all offseason long: an NFC Championship Game featuring the two best, baddest teams in the NFL—two teams for whom beating the other would mean more than anything short of a Super Bowl ring.
As Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin tweeted after the game, we wouldn't want it any other way.