In a league where the qualitative differences among the middle 25 or so teams can be covered by a postage stamp, the Seahawks and 49ers are two premier teams at the high end that are nearly identical in priorities, purpose and personalities.
Except that San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is 3-0 over Seattle coach Pete Carroll. Until that record gets a little more balanced, the NFC West series won’t ignite into a rivalry.In the view from Seattle, 5:30 p.m. Sunday would be a splendid time to start the conflagration.
“I think they used to call us the weakest division in football; now we’re one of the best,” said Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, responding to a question about three of New England’s four losses provided by the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals. “Lots of old-school, straight, hard-nosed football going on in NFC West.
“It’s going to come down to a few plays.”
The first seasonal meeting, a 13-6 49ers win in San Francisco Oct. 18, was more tense than a root canal. The outcome may have turned on any of five plays — all drops by Seahawks receivers of catchable Russell Wilson passes that could have been scores or first downs.
Carroll and the Seahawks will never admit that one loss is different or worse than another. That’s part of athlete DNA. But that game was a grand opportunity squandered. San Francisco was beatable, but has become an elite team over the past two seasons partly by mastering close games, as well as holding serve in the division with four wins in a row over the Seahawks: 40-21, 33-17, 19-17 and 13-6. And it has to sting Carroll that his old Pac-12 rival, Harbaugh, is applying the lash.
Asked about maintaining coaching friendships in the hyper-competitive NFL world, Carroll insisted that that the coaching brotherhood trumps personal rivalry.
“It’s just the guy you play that weekend,” he said. “You don’t factor that (personal rivalry) in. You just take who you are; it’s enough of a problem getting us right.
“As to regard for other coaches, I love these guys. They’ve given their lives to this game. They have different ways, backgrounds, stories . . . but they are guys who want to go out and ball. Just generally, I love everybody who wants to do that. We’re in this together.
“I don’t think it’s personal. It can get there sometimes. Individuals don’t get along sometimes. When we get together (during pre-game warm-ups) before the game, everyone gives it (the hang-dog look) saying, ‘This is hard.’ We all know we’re in big, tough challenges.”
Getting by San Francisco is Carroll’s biggest challenge. After the last meeting, he admitted that he couldn’t get his defense adjusted in time to stop the 49ers offense from trap-blocking the Seahawks’ defense into futility. In essence, he was outcoached, and he said Wednesday that the 49ers continue to do things that are hard to comprehend.
“They were really good last year, and continue to grow and do more things,” Carroll said. “The offensive line does really complicated stuff. They do a ton of things — pulling and trapping, kick-outs, getting guys on the edge — and are very consistent with it.
“We wonder sometimes how they can get it all done. Obviously, it’s great coaching.”
Having played for Harbaugh at Stanford, Sherman knows well the style.
“He’s always been kinda crazy with their formations and shifts,” he said. “They’ve been that way since I’ve known their offense — switch-on, switch-off, this tight end pulls here, this fullback goes there . . . all kind of crazy.
“I recognize a lot of stuff, but stopping it is another thing. You know what’s coming, but can you stop it?”
Impressive as was the Seahawks putting up 58 points on Arizona and 50 on Buffalo in consecutive weeks, the 49ers put up 38 at New England Sunday.
“They have come off a fantastic win, a win that everyone would respect,” Carroll said.
The Seahawks have come hard and fast in 2012. Whether they have come far enough . . . that’s Carroll’s deal Sunday.