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49ers-Seahawks Is NFL’s Most Heated Rivalry, But How Did We Get Here?

by Bill Disbrow
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(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – If you’ve taken a moment to browse online comments related to this weekend’s San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks NFC Championship matchup you know one thing, this is very personal for fans of on both sides. Unlike the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, which has aged like a fine wine over decades of competition and the move west from New York, this rivalry’s origins are far less apparent.

There is history between the West Coast neighbors, the Seahawks played their first ever NFL game against the red and gold after joining the league as an expansion franchise in 1976, and they faced off 30 times in all over the following years – stacking up identical 15-15 records. But for much of the franchises’ existence – think Warren Moon and Steve Largent – the ‘Hawks were AFC West rivals of the Oakland Raiders while they mostly toiled in obscurity in the dimly-lit Kingdome. There was little reason for the 49ers, who were enjoying dynasty status as they tallied 5 Super Bowl titles, to feel anything but pity for the also-rans in Seattle.

Things began to change in the late 1990’s when – get this Apple loyalists – Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bought the Seahawks, hired Bill Walsh disciple Mike Holmgren and returned the team to the playoffs, and relevance. Then, during 2002 realignment, the Seahawks joined the 49ers in the NFC West, catching the 49ers in perhaps their roughest patch in 30 years. By 2005 the Seahawks were the class of the division and NFC champions – losing Super Bowl XL to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams slumped –along with the rest of the NFC West – for the remainder of the ‘00’s, opening the door for regime change on the respective coaching staffs.

Meanwhile on the college scene, Pete Carroll had spent the decade restoring the luster of the once-vaunted USC football program, winning six prestigious bowl games and earning the 2003 and 2004 Associated Press National Championships and sending future stars like Carson Palmer and Reggie Bush to the NFL. A former NFL quarterback in his own right, Jim Harbaugh ascended the coaching ranks quickly from a 2002 Oakland Raiders assistant through the University of San Diego before landing in Palo Alto for the 2007 season. From the moment he landed at Stanford, Harbaugh reversed the program’s fortunes from Pac-10 doormat to perennial national power. By the time of Harbaugh’s departure in 2010 he had compiled the Cardinal’s first ever 11-win season and earned them an invitation to the prestigious Bowl Championship Series, where they blew out Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

With both Stanford and USC enjoying success, matchups between the schools became big dates on their respective calendars. After a huge Stanford upset in 2007 – a game which had USC favored by 41 – the teams faced off on relatively even footing in 2008. Stanford thumped the Trojans 55-21. Harbaugh went for a 2-point conversion at the end of the (already decided) game, prompting a huffy Pete Carroll to famously confront Harbaugh after the game, saying “What’s your deal?”

When Harbaugh joined the 49ers in 2011, a year after Carroll took the helm in Seattle, the animosity – and success – carried over. The teams have both been on upward trajectories since, with Harbaugh leading the 49ers to the NFC title game in each of his three season while the Seahawks, after earning a wild card birth last year, racked up a 13-3 record, tied for best in the NFL. The teams split two matchups this year with the Seahawks dominating at home while the 49ers squeaked out a victory in Candlestick.

As John Madden explains it, “Seattle became a pretty good team and the 49ers became a good team – those are the ingredients (for a rivalry).”

While the action on the field has been intense, the antics by fans has been equally entertaining. The fans have traded mostly good-natured pranks over the past year plus.  The hijinks kicked off when Hawks fans – who call themselves the 12th man – pooled money to buy a personalized brick backing the Seahawks outside the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara.  They then upped the ante by flying a ‘Go Hawks’ banner of the most recent matchup between the teams at Candlestick Park. Niner fans responded by paying for a banner pointing out the championship legacy of the San Francisco squad which went up in the Seattle area. When Seahawks fans turned up to “photobomb” the event, Bay Area organizers made sure the stunt backfired, as you can see here:

Fan have since kept it classy by raising money for children’s hospitals in each city, opting instead to keep the rivalry on the field (and in online comment forums).

Now the fans get the ending they were likely hoping for all along, a chance to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl by vanquishing their biggest rival. But for the loser, the defeat will be crushing.

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