So sadly, the great American sports rivalry is on the wane. Cowboys-Redskins is a rivalry only in the sense of which owner is a bigger dope. Red Sox-Yankees can’t be the same rivalry when the Red Sox win three World Series in 10 years while the Yankees win only one, inspired that autumn by a juiced third baseman who has been banned. Ohio State is considerably better than Michigan in football, just as Duke is on a much higher plane than North Carolina in basketball.
Giants-Dodgers? When fans are stabbed to death or spend two years in hospitals and rehabilitation centers after a vicious beating, uh, that isn’t what we really want in a rivalry.
As for the NBA? “There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days,” LeBron James said recently, downplaying the threat of the Pacers, whose rivalry style points are diluted because they’re from Indiana. “What’s a rivalry? A rivalry is Celtics and Lakers. They met like four out of five years. Bulls-Pistons. Those are rivalries, man. We’ve played (the Pacers) two straight years in the playoffs, and guys automatically make it a rivalry. It’s not a rivalry.”
For a rivalry to be a RIVALRY, it must be driven by legitimate rancor between the teams, a fan rage that isn’t homicidal, years of credibility on both sides as championship contenders and a nationwide belief that the winner of their showdown ultimately will own the big trophy.
This aptly describes 49ers vs. Seahawks, by far the hottest and most meaningful rivalry in a sport that is driving TV ratings in stunning record numbers, to the point the NFL has become the most potent force in all American entertainment.
“I think we’re the two teams everyone was looking at from the beginning,” said the San Francisco quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who is back to his swaggering self after flashing the Kaepernicking pose and imitating the Superman pose of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton during a 23-10 victory over the Panthers. “It’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out game.”
“We’re healthy, we’re a great team and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get that ring,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said, per the Associated Press. “We’re playing great ball.”
A rebuttal from the Seahawks? “We haven’t done anything yet,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “That’s our goal. We have 60 minutes of football left.”
The coaches have been antagonizing each other for years, from the days Pete Carroll led a dynasty at USC and Jim Harbaugh toppled it at Stanford. First he beat the Trojans as a 41–point underdog, then he ran up the score in a subsequent victory. “What’s your deal?” Carroll asked afterward. What’s your deal? Who knew that would lead to the current hysteria wrapped around the NFC title game?
Harbaugh claims to like Carroll. “I enjoy his company — very professional relationship,” he told Bay Area media recently. “And a lot things (are) made out to be what people make them out to be.” Sorry, there is too much tension surrounding these teams to believe it. Harbaugh has made wry comments about issues surrounding the Seahawks and performance-enhancing-drugs suspensions. Richard Sherman, Seattle’s lead smack-talker, told Sports Illustrated that the Seahawks truly hate Harbaugh. Sarah Harbaugh, wife of the coach, said she doesn’t like Seattle. Anthony Dixon, a 49ers running backs, referred to the enemy as the “She-Hawks” in a tweet. Seahawks linebacker replied in his own tweet, “It’s gonna be a long night for you and the forty whiners.” And that was just before a regular-season game.
Who knows what might be said with history and legacies at stake Sunday in Seattle? Recent results suggest the Seahawks will have a decided edge, given their 71-16 victory margin in two home thumpings of the 49ers. Kaepernick, who started slowly in the divisional-round victory over Carolina, has played poorly amid the ear-ripping decibels of CenturyLink Field, and much of that seven-turnover ugliness by the Niners’ offense has been caused by Seattle’s monster defense.
But the 49ers do handle the Seahawks in San Francisco, as recently as last month. There is no shortage of confidence that they can transfer the winning paradigm to the Pacific Northwest. The reason: if Seattle’s defense is the NFL’s best, San Francisco’s is No. 1-A, shutting out the Panthers in the second half. Looking typically crazed, though it’s an act belying a global perspective that includes regular trips to a Peruvian town to observe abject poverty, Harbaugh barked at his players in their Charlotte locker room. “One more chance, the ultimate chance,” he told them. “Who can possibly have it better than us?”
“NOOOOO-BODY!!!” they responded.
That is the Harbaugh family chant, of course, handed down by father Jack to sons Jim and John as we were told at least a million times at last year’s Super Bowl. The retort: Seattle and Carroll could have it better than you. But the Seahawks still have their own issues, such as an offense that relied so much on Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Mode” turf thrashings Saturday that the game plan bogged down. Russell Wilson is still struggling, completing only nine passes for 103 yards. Percy Harvin, his hip finally ruled healthy, suffered a concussion that could sideline him or, at least, prevent him from being a needed difference-maker. Not until Wilson found Doug Baldwin for 31 yards, on third-and-3 with three minutes left, did the the Seahawks survive a New Orleans team ripe to be routed.
Said Wilson, referring to rain and wind that sometimes was wicked: “In the third quarter, we were going against the wind, so we played it conservative. We played it smart. We had the lead. We wanted to make sure that we got to the fourth quarter without taking any risks. I knew how the game was going, that it was going to come down to a big-time throw. I wasn’t my best all day or whatever, but I knew it was going to come down that. I knew I was going to have to make a big-time throw and someone was going to have to make a big-time catch, and Doug Baldwin made that catch.”
But Wilson, despite his problems, has lost only one home game in his first two NFL seasons. He has played wonderful football in The Claw, which is what the downtown stadium should be called given its design and intimidating aura. Kaepernick hasn’t figured out the puzzle yet. Why would it be different this time?
“We’re a different team than we were the first time we played them,” he said. “We have a lot of key playmakers back. And we’re ready to roll.”
Certainly, he was rolling on his “little shoutout” to Newton, mocking the rip-open-the-jersey act of the Carolina quarterback. Seems Kaepernick is still sore about being picked in the second round of the 2011 draft; Newton went No. 1. “I will never forget,” he said.
Said Newton: “That’s not the first, nor will it be the last time somebody does that.”
Yes, the 49ers have been inspired by the return of Michael Crabtree, the playmaking threat who makes Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis more effective. And, yes, we did see our favorite tattooed warrior give us a Kaepernicking moment, flexing his muscle at the elbow in the pose he made famous last season. And, yes, the defense is playing at a supreme level led by NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, better than ever since his stay in alcohol rehab.
I am tempted to pick the 49ers, who have won in a Green Bay deep freeze and on a pleasant Carolina afternoon and could win in any city, continent or solar system. But Wilson is less of a risk than Kaepernick. And Lynch is more explosive than counterpart Frank Gore. “I don’t run to get tackled,” Lynch said. And the Seattle kicker, Steven Hauschka, proved again that he is an ace in inclement weather. As for the fans, they triggered another small earthquake in the stadium after Lynch’s clinching touchdown run.
There are too many reasons to pick Seattle. So I will.
But the fact I have to think about it, extensively, feeds the very definition of a rivalry, the best we have in American sports.