Throw in playoff implications and no wonder the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks were given a prime-time showcase.
“There is something about them, man. They’re basically the same team as us and I just hate that fact,” Seattle safety Kam Chancellor said.
The 49ers and Seahawks’ fierce rivalry will be in full view before a national TV audience on Sunday night. And the stakes are high.
San Francisco (10-3-1) needs one win in its final two games to clinch a second NFC West title in a row. Nearly 20 years ago was the last time the 49ers claimed consecutive division crowns, and wins the final two weeks would assure the San Francisco at least a first-round playoff bye.
Seattle (9-5) needs one victory to clinch at least a wild-card berth. Two wins and an unlikely San Francisco loss in the finale against Arizona would give the Seahawks the division title, although hopes of a division crown all but ended when the 49ers held on to beat New England last week.
Sunday night provides an opportunity for Seattle to prove its legitimacy. The Seahawks’ three consecutive wins and two 50-point outbursts caught the NFL’s attention. But those victories came against fading Chicago, Arizona and Buffalo.
Beat the 49ers and Seattle becomes one of those teams no one in the NFC wants to see in the postseason.
“In December you want to be the hot team,” San Francisco running back Frank Gore said. “We know that if we get the win we can win the division. They’ve been playing great. I think they got better as a team each week since they played us.”
The 49ers must avoid any letdown from last week’s wild 41-34 win at New England and solve Seattle’s impenetrable home-field advantage. The Seahawks are 6-0 at home, their last loss at CenturyLink Field coming in Week 16 of 2011 to the 49ers.
It’ll be Colin Kaepernick’s first venture into the loudest environment in the NFL, another chance for Seattle QB Russell Wilson to strengthen his late-season surge into top offensive rookie consideration, and another meeting between coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh.
“It feels good to know that you’re playing for something,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. “We have a playoff berth, but we want the division.”
The reunion of Harbaugh and Carroll brings together a pair with similar coaching beliefs and diametrically opposite personalities. They share a love of khakis, winning and not caring what others think about their coaching styles.
The two coaches traded barbs this week about not sharing Christmas cards with one another. Undoubtedly there won’t be any birthday gifts waiting for Harbaugh when he shows up at CenturyLink Field even though he turns 49 Sunday.
“I understand they didn’t get our Christmas card yet. I have to check the list,” Carroll joked this week.
While there are little similarities in the demeanor of their coaches, there is no denying after 15 weeks how much the teams mirror each other.
Statistically, they are nearly the same. They are Nos. 2 and 3 in the league in rushing the ball, and in total defense, the base principles each preach. They rank Nos. 1 and 2 in scoring defense, with the 49ers slightly ahead by allowing one less point. Even numbers like time of possession average, penalties and sacks are even or nearly the same.
They’ve even punted almost exactly the same number of times: 49 for the Seahawks, 50 for the 49ers.
“I can’t help but see that because they believe in playing big-time defense as well as us, they believe in the running game, which we do, and they have a very strong emphasis on special teams, which we do,” Carroll said. “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. I don’t know how they speak it or how they talk about it, but it’s certainly what’s obvious about their team.”
The belief about the Seahawks has morphed over the past three weeks as they have suddenly grown into a scoring machine. Beginning with the fourth-quarter of their overtime win at Chicago in Week 13, the Seahawks have outscored their opponents 121-20 in the last nine quarters plus an overtime. The offensive potency has been a mixture of Wilson’s running and passing, and gashing runs from Marshawn Lynch, who has just 21 carries the last two weeks but rushed for 241 yards combined in those victories.
Not to be outdone, Kaepernick and the 49ers aren’t struggling for points. Since Kaepernick took over as the starter on Nov. 19, San Francisco has topped 25 points in all four victories, giving an added element of his big arm and running ability to the offense.
Seattle’s defensive front was exposed in the first meeting by San Francisco’s wrinkle of using trap runs. Linebacker K.J. Wright said at all the different levels he’s played, he never saw a trap play until Gore came sprinting through gaping holes with defenders completely out of place. Gore rushed for a season-high 131 yards and Wilson struggled through his worst game of the season, flustered by the 49ers’ pass rush and key drops by his own receivers.
“It’s a championship game. That’s the way we approach it this week,” Wilson said. “It’s a championship game and we’re going to have to prepare and play like it.”