San Francisco 49ers

Seahawks-49ers rivalry is sure to cool if Harbaugh leaves

Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll meet at midfield after the Seahawks’ win in the NFC Championship game in January.
Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll meet at midfield after the Seahawks’ win in the NFC Championship game in January. The Bee

The best coaching rivalry in the NFL, perhaps in all professional sports, was part of the spicy mixture that created one of the best games of the 2013 season.

The NFC Championship Game in Seattle 11 months ago had drama to grip even the most casual fan: the 49ers’ NaVorro Bowman’s Greek tragedy-like heroism in forcing a fumble while his left knee was torn apart; a 40-yard touchdown run by the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch that literally shook the city; and a pivotal, last-minute throw to the corner of the end zone, the emotional aftermath from which nearly upstaged the game itself.

When the Seahawks blew away the Denver Broncos two weeks later, there was a sense that the true Super Bowl already had been played.

“It had to be right up there at the top,” said 12-year veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin when asked how that game ranked in intensity over his career. “It’s what you’re playing for – the right to go on to a championship game. … It made it that much better.”

That white-hot intensity of the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry is sure to cool off if, as expected, coach Jim Harbaugh moves on after the season.

While Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is the villainous face of the rivalry for 49ers fans, in Seattle the guy wearing the $8 pleated khakis and black polar fleece is who the fans love to hate.

If Harbaugh goes? The Seattle Times this week ran a poll on whether the rivalry would lose its luster if Harbaugh is no longer part of it. More than 72 percent said it would.

And depending on where Harbaugh winds up, his departure also could mean a detente in the long-running duel between him and Seattle coach Pete Carroll.

The Seahawks – including Carroll – have been incredulous that it’s even a possibility.

“The fact that he’s going through all those conversations and stuff – he’s a stud,” said Carroll, who in 2009 had a testy postgame exchange with Harbaugh and who has gotten a kick out of needling Harbaugh during interviews ever since.

“He’s not going to waver,” Carroll continued, this time full of praise for Harbaugh. “He’s going to keep battling and do what he does. He’s a great competitor. He always has been. That’s why they’re so dangerous coming in right now because of his leadership and his toughness about the way he runs his program.”

Told of Carroll’s “stud” comment, Harbaugh replied: “I feel the same way about him.”

Warm compliments and fuzzy kudos aside, Carroll could deliver Harbaugh’s knockout blow on Sunday.

A 49ers loss, coupled with a win by the Detroit Lions, would eliminate San Francisco from playoff contention, the first time Harbaugh has missed the postseason since joining the 49ers in 2011. The Lions and Minnesota Vikings kick off at 1:25 p.m., the same time as the 49ers and Seahawks.

A Seahawks win also would even the series between the two coaches, which began in 2007 when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll at USC, at six games apiece.

Harbaugh isn’t the only key character in the rivalry who may not be part of it in coming seasons. For the 49ers, running back Frank Gore and wide receiver Michael Crabtree – Sherman’s main nemesis – are scheduled to become free agents at the end of the season. Gore’s return to the 49ers in 2015 is questionable; Crabtree’s is best termed doubtful.

For the Seahawks, there has been talk that Lynch could retire at season’s end, despite the fact that he is currently the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher and at the top of his game.

But even with those principals still in place for Sunday’s matchup, there’s already a sense that the rivalry has diminished.

The 49ers, who lost 19-3 at home to the Seahawks on Thanksgiving night, are double-digit underdogs for Sunday’s game. That’s the first time they’ve been in that position since early in Harbaugh’s inaugural season in San Francisco, when he took them to Philadelphia and the 49ers pulled off a 24-23 win.

The 49ers have no shot at winning the division. In fact, they’re 11/2 games out of last place in the NFC West.

“We have been behind and things just haven’t been right for us,” Gore told the Seattle media. “It’s just been a different year for us this year. As a guy who’s been here for 10 years, I’m blessed and I’m just trying to finish it out right. Hopefully we get out there and give them boys a good game.”

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

HARBAUGH VS. CARROLL

The two coaches have faced each other 11 times in their coaching careers, with Harbaugh holding the overall edge (6-5) but Carroll finding more success in the past two seasons, winning four of the last five matches.

Date

Score

Location

Winning coach

Oct. 6, 2007

Stanford 24, No. 2 USC 23

at L.A. Coliseum

Harbaugh

Nov. 15, 2008

No. 6 USC 45, Stanford 23

at Stanford

Carroll

Nov. 14, 2009

No. 25 Stanford 55, No. 11 USC 21

at L.A. Coliseum

Harbaugh

Sept. 11, 2011

49ers 33, Seahawks 17

at Candlestick Park

Harbaugh

Dec. 24, 2011

49ers 19, Seahawks 17

at Seattle

Harbaugh

Oct. 18, 2012

49ers 13, Seahawks 6

at Candlestick Park

Harbaugh

Dec. 23, 2012

Seahawks 42, 49ers 13

at Seattle

Carroll

Sept. 15, 2013

Seahawks 29, 49ers 3

at Seattle

Carroll

Dec. 8, 2013

49ers 19, Seahawks 17

at Candlestick Park

Harbaugh

Jan. 19, 2014

Seahawks 23, 49ers 17

at Seattle

Carroll

Nov. 27

Seahawks 19, 49ers 3

at Levi’s Stadium

Carroll

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