At its most fundamental, Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks is being held to determine which team represents the conference in the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 in New Jersey.
And now that’s out of the way.
Subplots of this weekend’s game in Seattle run thicker than fog coming off San Francisco Bay or the foam on a Starbucks cappuccino. The coaches have history that predates their NFL days. The quarterbacks are both young, dynamic leaders but a contrast in personas. The teams, with their uncompromisingly physical playing styles, strike some as mirror images of one another.
Behind them rally rabid fan bases representing two areas known for their contributions to pop culture. In the blue (and green) corner: Microsoft and Nirvana. In the red (and gold) corner: the Beats – not to be confused with Colin Kaepernick’s headphones – and Apple.
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Above all, the current state of both teams as among the NFL’s elite has transformed what five years ago was a fairly innocuous intradivision contest into perhaps the league’s best and most compelling rivalry – one enhanced by mutual dislike.
“There’s no question there’s a lot of hostility between us,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said this week.
“There is no love lost,” outspoken Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told reporters in Seattle of the rivalry, “and there is no love found.”
Sherman is a Stanford man, where he played under now-49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. He was part of the 2009 Stanford team that handed a 55-21 defeat to a USC team led by now-Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, prompting the infamous “What’s your deal?” exchange between Harbaugh and Carroll during their postgame handshake.
Since being drafted by the Seahawks in 2011, though – and passed over by Harbaugh and the 49ers, among others – Sherman has been at the center of the growing rivalry between the two teams. After Harbaugh suggested the Seahawks’ cornerbacks get away with too much contact during games, Sherman called his former coach a “bully.” After the 49ers beat the Seahawks in San Francisco in 2012, Sherman was one of two Seattle players who said Harbaugh honked at the Seahawks’ team bus on its way out of the parking lot.
Last summer, Harbaugh responded to a series of performance-enhancing drug suspensions in Seattle by saying he tells his own team to “play by the rules.” That prompted Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner to tell a Seattle-area radio station that if Harbaugh ever lined up against him on the field, “I’d put my hands around his neck.”
All these run-ins wouldn’t generate quite as much interest were they occurring in NFL mediocrity. The Seahawks rejoined the NFC West division in 2002, and while they reached the Super Bowl after the 2005 season, the 49ers were in the midst of eight consecutive seasons without a winning record.
In 2011, though, the 49ers wrested the division title away from the Seahawks, then won it again in 2012 en route to the Super Bowl. This season, the Seahawks took it back. Add in that both teams feature a hard-nosed defense and similar running game, and even covet the same style of player, and you have the crux of the contention.
“These are two teams that play very similarly, and there’s only room for one to win the division,” said Danny O’Neil, a former Seahawks beat writer who now co-hosts a radio show for ESPN 710 in Seattle. “So I don’t think it’s a personal animosity, I think it’s a professional animosity.”
That doesn’t make the rivalry any less juicy for fans, including those in another highly competitive profession. Both Seattle and the Bay Area house prolific tech communities, with the former spawning Microsoft and Amazon, among others, and the latter Google and Apple. Connections extend to the teams’ front offices – Seahawks owner Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft, while 49ers team President Gideon Yu is a Facebook alum.
Rob Enderle, a technology analyst based in the Silicon Valley, said there exists “a fairly strong rivalry” between the areas’ tech communities. And while it predates the current football one, having begun in the ’90s, it has a similar guiding principle.
“The firms are going after the same market,” Enderle said. Meanwhile, “A lot of highly qualified, very highly paid specialists live in both areas and tend to take their football seriously. ... The industries compete with each other fairly aggressively, and the teams are kind of tied to the ethos of the folks that live in the two places.”
Of course, you don’t have to be a tech whiz to grasp the spirit of the rivalry. And for most fans, said O’Neil, “There’s not a whole lot of sense of, ‘Is Microsoft better than Apple?’ ”
“I think if you’re going to identify the touch-points of the rivalry, it’s the coaches and the quarterbacks,” O’Neil said. “Those are the two things.”
Harbaugh is typically intense and guarded in public, while Carroll comes off as loose and easygoing. Both are demonstrative on the sideline, where Carroll seems to smile as often as Harbaugh grimaces. The differences between their quarterbacks, meanwhile, is maybe most visible in the interview room. While Kaepernick’s dealings with media are usually short and rarely revealing, Seattle’s Russell Wilson can be more willing to open up.
“Seattle fans really dislike Harbaugh and how he’s just kind of a difficult personality,” said O’Neil.
Seattleites have also taken exception, O’Neil said, to a recent TV ad that shows Kaepernick using his headphones to block out the insults of hostile opposing fans who clearly seem to be Seahawks faithful.
49ers fans, meanwhile, balked last week when the Seahawks announced they would be selling tickets to Sunday’s game – but only to residents of six states that didn’t include California. After the teams played in Seattle earlier this season, a handful of 49ers fans complained of excessive noise in the Seahawks’ stadium, which is regularly regarded as the NFL’s loudest.
But Kevin Fippin, a local 49ers fan and social media editor of the sports website Sactown Royalty, agreed with O’Neil on the focus of 49ers fans’ rancor.
“You start with Pete Carroll, who just comes off as this smug Southern California guy who’s friends with all these actors and celebrities,” Fippin said. “Then you send him up to Seattle to coach a team full of a bunch of guys that talk smack.
“It’s players you would probably love if they were on your team. But since they’re not, it’s all right to hate them.”
For some Sacramento-area fans, Fippin said, there’s an extra layer to the rivalry. When it still looked like the NBA’s Kings might relocate, Seattle emerged as a possible destination. At one point, Seattle investor Chris Hansen tried to buy the team to move it to the Northwest, and drew the ire of Kings fans when he financed a signature-gathering campaign to force a public vote on Sacramento’s subsidy for a new arena.
“Prior to a year or two ago Seattle wasn’t really on my radar,” Fippin said. “But after the relocation saga there were a lot of feelings like that city was trying to steal something of ours. Then you add the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry and you’ve got something that feels like Sacramento especially is going to be linked to Seattle and this sort of rivalry forever.”
Many longtime 49ers fans likely still associate “rival” with the Dallas Cowboys, though those teams last met in the playoffs in 1995. Both the 49ers and Seahawks, meanwhile, tried this week to mostly downplay any sense of real animosity between the two teams.
Still, Alex Hesser, a history teacher at Justin-Siena High School in Napa, is among those who believe it’s the “best rivalry in football right now.” Hesser occupies a rare position in the rivalry: He’s a Northern California native and a Seahawks fan – the result, he said, of his parents buying him a Seahawks jacket when he was a kid.
“I never hated the Niners growing up, and I still don’t,” Hesser said. “It’s just the fact that the teams are so good and so strikingly similar.
“I can see why people hate the Seahawks. I can see hating Pete Carroll, Richard Sherman. But I don’t. I love them. I think with both teams, it’s either love ’em or hate ’em.”