It starts with the coaches. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll don’t like each other. That obvious distaste has been passed to their players too. Couple that with the fact that the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are not only the best teams in the division, but perhaps the best two teams in the conference, and this is the best rivalry in the NFL right now.
The latest chapter will be written Sunday night in Seattle. On Monday, Harbaugh said it’s too early to talk about playoff implications in Week 2, but he and everyone else involved in Sunday’s game knows otherwise. Whoever wins this game has the inside track to the NFC West title, and perhaps home-field advantage when the postseason rolls around.
That alone gives more meaning to Sunday’s game. But the whole Harbaugh-Carroll rivalry turns it up another level.
It started well before the two faced each in the NFL. In 2009 Carroll was at the helm of a USC program atop of the college ranks and Harbaugh was in his third year at Stanford. Harbaugh had already taken one of two from Carroll in the previous seasons, yet hadn’t finished with a winning record either year. In the 2009 game Stanford beat USC 55-21, and Harbaugh really rubbed it in when he attempted a two-point conversion late in the contest with the outcome already decided. As the two went to shake hands after the game, Carroll walked up to his counterpart and asked, “What’s your deal?”
This offseason, Harbaugh commented on the issues Seattle had with the NFL’s substance abuse policy and alluded the Adderall claims might be covering up for something else. Harbaugh also complained about Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner after a game last season, saying the Seattle cornerbacks should have been flagged for illegal contact several times.
On Wednesday, the Bay Area media asked the Seahawks coach if he and Harbaugh were friends.
“What do you think?” Carroll replied.
For all their personal differences however, Harbaugh and Carroll are very similar football coaches and have built teams that mirror each other.
Everything starts on defense. A year ago, San Francisco and Seattle ranked third and fourth, respectively, in total defense. They were the top two teams in scoring defense too – the Seahawks ranked first with 15.3 points allowed per game while the 49ers finished second at 17.1. And it’s not just that they’re great defenses, they’re physical defenses that beat you up and leave you bruised.
The offenses pack a punch, too. They make opponents pay on the ground, with Seattle finishing third a season ago in rushing and finishing San Francisco fourth. When the ball isn’t in the hands of their physical running backs, both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks who possess as much skill as they have grit. Those guys are protected by two of the nastiest offensive lines in the League as well.
Besides the quarterbacks, the teams are loaded with stars. And outside of Michael Crabtree, who will be sidelined on Sunday anyways, none carry themselves with any sense of entitlement. These are blue-collar teams with white-collar talent.
The hatred between the coaches has rubbed off on the players as well. After Harbaugh made his offseason comments about Seattle, Browner told a local radio station that if he lined up against the 49ers coach, “I’d put my hands around his neck.” 49ers All Pro linebacker didn’t go quite that far when he spoke with ESPN over the summer, but he feels the tension between the teams. “I don’t like using the word ‘hate,’ but it’s definitely like a heavyweight fight when we play each other,” he said. “We’re not throwing little jabs that barely hurt. We’re trying to knock each other out.”
Even the front offices get into the mix, as evidenced by the 49ers signing wide receiver Chris Harper after Seattle released him before Week 1. Harper is the latest in a long line of players who have gone straight from one of these teams to the other.
And this rivalry is not going to be short lived. The coaches seem to have plenty left in the tank. As do the young, talented quarterbacks and most of the playmakers around them. Throw Seattle’s deafening stadium into the mix along with Levi’s Stadium that the 49ers will move into next year, and it makes these games that much more enjoyable on TV. On top of that, the other two teams in the division are searching for the franchise quarterbacks (Sam Bradford is not the answer in St. Louis), so San Francisco and Seattle will be vying for the NFC West crown for the foreseeable future.
There’s nothing this rivalry doesn’t have.
San Francisco and Seattle split the season series in 2012, with the 49ers grinding out a home win early in the season before the Seahawks laid a 42-13 beat down in Week 16 on national TV. Sunday’s match up returns to primetime, and San Francisco is seeking revenge. That, and the early lead in perhaps the toughest division in football.
So forget about the Madden commercials and playful bets between Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. This game means everything. The players and coaches will leave it all out there. Because when Harbaugh and Carroll begrudgingly shake hands after the game, neither wants to be the one asking, “what’s your deal?”