The only team standing between the Seahawks and the Super Bowl now is the one they loathe, the one they’re most like, their nemesis and their twin.
The San Francisco 49ers. It had to be the 49ers. The two teams spent all season stalking each other like boxers dancing around the ring, and though they sparred twice earlier this year, it’s finally time for them to meet in the middle and truly unload on each other for the right to be called the NFC champion.
Rivalries in sports can only live on hatred and regular-season stakes for so long. At some point, the teams are bound to reach greatness at the same time, and then the venom spews onto a grander stage.
On Sunday, in the NFC Championship Game, the stakes will be as high as they can get for these teams — a Super Bowl appearance.
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The Seahawks have anticipated this matchup for more than a month, dating to their 19-17 loss at San Francisco on Dec. 8.
“We will see them again, and it will be a different result,” All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman predicted last month.
Said All-Pro safety Earl Thomas that day: “I’m not a psychic or anything like that. If we do, it’s going to be a good game, and I guarantee we’ll come out on top.”
It seemed the Seahawks made those bold proclamations more out of disgust over losing to the 49ers than pure arrogance. They would’ve said anything to suppress the aftertaste of such a bitter disappointment.
The Seahawks had beaten the 49ers by a combined score of 71-16 the previous two times they had met, both at CenturyLink Field. At the end of the 2012 season, the Seahawks signaled their arrival as a contender with a 42-13 victory.
In Week 2 of this season, in a game hyped as one of the biggest regular-season games in Seattle sports history, the Seahawks won 29-3 amid a lightning storm and announced to a “Sunday Night Football” national audience that they were worthy of Super Bowl contender status.
San Francisco shrugged in response. The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl a year ago and came one play shy of winning the thing. The year before, they lost in the NFC Championship Game. Despite the early blowout loss, they knew they would be fine over the course of the long season.
The Seahawks went on to take the NFC West crown from San Francisco. But despite the daunting task of playing on the road for the entire playoffs, the 49ers made it here, to their third straight NFC title game.
The 49ers’ edge in experience is one of the few things that distinguishes them from the Seahawks. If these teams were any more alike, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh would have to take a DNA test to determine if they’re related.
And that would be quite the twist, because the coaches’ mutual dislike is well-documented, going back to their college-coaching days in the Pac-10.
Beneath the disdain, though, are several shared philosophies. In a league that grows more obsessed with passing and scoring, Carroll and Harbaugh have created throwbacks. The Seahawks and 49ers attempted the fewest passes in the NFL this season and called the highest percentage of running plays. They both believe in a power running game; the Seahawks have Marshawn Lynch, and the 49ers rely on Frank Gore.
Both teams play rugged defense. Both teams are so physical that they’re capable of bullying victories. And both teams are led by young, mobile quarterbacks who don’t have to throw for 300 yards to strike fear into opponents.
Russell Wilson doesn’t have a touchdown celebration, though. He’ll let Colin Kaepernick, who kisses his bicep (known as Kaepernicking) after he scores, own that category.
But as much as Seahawks fans despise Kaepernick’s swagger and narcissism, they also cheer for a team whose defense dances during breaks and whose star cornerback, Sherman, is known for his mouth and brash behavior.
The Seahawks and 49ers would love each other if they could ever stand being on the same field.
It’s a rivalry that has been building since the Seahawks switched from the AFC to NFC in 2002. Soon after the relocation, Seattle established its most consistent run of success in franchise history. On the other hand, San Francisco, which had won five Super Bowls from 1982-1995, struggled.
The NFC West had once been about the 49ers’ supremacy. But the division’s other teams — Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis — all made Super Bowl appearances as the 49ers crumbled. When Harbaugh arrived before the 2011 season, San Francisco hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2002.
The change of the divisional dynamic enabled the 49ers to have peers, not doormats. Jealousies developed. Rivalries ensued. Today, it doesn’t get more heated than Seattle vs. San Francisco, two similar cities featuring teams that have redefined the customary, free-flowing West Coast football by employing a bruising style.
Neither the Seahawks nor the 49ers would be the same without the other. Like all good rivals, they belong together. They have created the best thing the NFL has on this side of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. But let’s not get all mushy about it.
Sunday will be cover-your-eyes intense. It’s time to settle which team is really better.
The Super Bowl might be a letdown after this one.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @JerryBrewer