NFL realignment came for the Seahawks in 2002. They had a proud, if not particularly eventful, history in the AFC West. They had five playoff appearances and two division titles in their first 27 seasons. Seahawks fans were accustomed to being the underdog against the John Elway-led Broncos, the Marcus Allen-led Raiders, or even the Derrick Thomas-led Chiefs. Seattle fans loved beating those teams. Fans screamed so loud in the Kingdome when John Elway or Marc Wilson went under center that the league briefly changed the rules and started penalizing Seattle for being too loud. Passion has never been missing for Seahawks fans. That passion is derived from a love of football and the Mt Rainier-sized chip on their shoulders about lack of respect. What Seahawks fans have never truly experienced is a rivalry. A decade after realignment, and in the midst of their 37th NFL season, the Seahawks have found their first true rival.
It takes two to create a rivalry. Many Seahawks fans would say they lost their rivals when the team moved to the NFC West. It was hard to imagine hating a team more than the Raiders or Broncos. The problem was, no team in the AFC West really considered the Seahawks a rival. They were the younger brother in the division that put up a good fight now and then, but never really scared anyone. It was worse after moving to the NFC West, where there was little emotional investment on either side of those early divisional games.
Seattle entered the NFC West at a time when the “Greatest Show on Turf” was still in action for the St. Louis Rams, and the 49ers were in the final throws of their 1990s run with the likes of Jeff Garcia and Garrison Hearst. Seattle was ascending as those franchises were on the decline. It took only two years to make the playoffs, and then the Seahawks won four straight division titles. Winning the division during those times was hardly an impressive accomplishment. Fans for the Rams, Cardinals and 49ers were grumpy, but hardly combative enough to provoke much response for Seahawks fans.
That all changed when Jim Harbaugh joined the division last year. 49ers fans had been mostly dormant during the team’s decade-long morose, but there was a proud and decidedly obnoxious fan base just waiting for a chance to recapture the glory of the Bill Walsh years. The 13-3 record last season once again left the NFC West completely in the hands of one franchise. Seahawks fans saw growth and potential in their team, but the reality was 7-9 was nowhere near 13-3, and the 49ers had won both match-ups.
This season is different. San Francisco fans met optimistic Seattle fans with derision early on, pointing to Pete Carroll’s matching 7-9 records during his first two years. It was easy to dismiss the Seahawks, starting with a rookie quarterback who is under 5’11”, when the 49ers were popular picks to win the Super Bowl. It irritated San Francisco fans to have to listen to Seahawks fans talk about wins against the Packers, Cowboys and Patriots. Things could have boiled over if the Seahawks had managed to win that Thursday night game in October. It would have forced 49ers fans to face the possibility that the Seahawks were true challengers, but instead, they were able to comfortably retreat back to the land of “Seattle is irrelevant.”
Seattle was not irrelevant. They would go on to beat the Bears on the road, and rewrite the history books with back-to-back blowout victories against the Cardinals and Bills. The 49ers had their own rousing wins against the Bears and Patriots, but lost and tied to the Rams. It has led up to this titanic battle in Seattle on Sunday night between two teams recognized around the league as among the best in the NFL. These two fan bases not only despise each other, but they have an unbridled hatred for the opposing teams head coach.
These two teams play a similar style. They relish contact, and have the size and speed to make that contact count. Neither team can look across the field or at tape and see a clear path to victory. Strength meets strength. Both teams are built to compete at a championship level for years to come. This is what a rivalry looks like.
San Francisco retains a psychological edge. They are 3-0 against the Seahawks during Harbaugh’s tenure. A win for the Seahawks on Sunday would leave 49ers fans defending their team backing into a division title on the strength of a tie versus the Rams at home. It would remove the last spec of doubt from Seahawks players and fans about the team’s ability to beat any team in the NFL as they head into the playoffs. Apollo Creed never truly respected Rocky until he was beat. This should be San Francisco’s year. They are seasoned and talented. Seattle has closed ground at a dizzying pace, and a win would have to make the 49ers wonder if they have been surpassed.
The best two teams in the NFL will meet at CenturyLink field Sunday night. Fans, players, and coaches will bring an intensity not seen anywhere else this season. The NFL’s next great rivalry will be introduced to the nation. Not even Vegas can decide which team has the advantage. The game will be close. It will be raining. It will be football perfection. Get used to it.