This “best rivalry in football stuff” we are being bombarded with this week is true. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are the best rivalry in football.
For a little while, anyway.
It is a rivalry currently running blue-hot in the otherwise megabland National Football League. Two teams that do not enjoy each other’s company (though their animus is less than we think it is) coached by two men who have clashed shields and swords for nearly a decade (though their animus is at least partially overblown for entertainment purposes -- cue Chicken McNuggets ad executives in three . . . two . . . one . . . ).
And there are plenty of comparison points -- said coaches and future ad buddies (J.J. Harbaugh and P.C. Carroll), the new generation of quarterbacks (C.R. Kaepernick v. R.C. Wilson), the old-school game-defining running backs (F.D. Gore v. M.T. Lynch), and the talky toasters and wide-out roasters (R.K. Sherman v. C.C. Rogers and D.D. Whitner, nee Hitner, nee Whitner).
This can be a rivalry for the ages, it truly can. But it requires the hardest thing a football team can manage -- multiple years of excellence in a league heavily skewed toward regressing to the mean.
Say, like Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh, and on a slightly lower level, New Orleans, the New York Giants and San Diego.
The 49ers have had three very winning seasons in succession (40-13-1) in that time. The Seahawks started later (26-9), and their collision has been driven by that success in the confined space of the NFC West.
But historically, the teams have barely noticed each other; indeed, the entire division is like a floor of a college dorm. Since 1967, when the Coastal Division was born with Atlanta, the Baltimore Colts, Los Angeles Rams and 49ers, this has been a division whose members have largely passed in the night.
Adding teams and shedding them to preserve the sanctity of other divisions, the West was always the sock-and-battery drawer of the NFL armoire. Division rivals have met exactly five times in the 47 postseasons, and none of the games have been particularly memorable:
• 1989-90: San Francisco beats Los Angeles, 30-3, in the NFC title game en route to its fourth Super Bowl.
• 1991-92: Atlanta beats New Orleans, 27-20, in the wild-card round before losing the next week.
• 1998-89: Atlanta beats San Francisco, 20-18, in the divisional game en route to its only Super Bowl appearance.
• 2000-01: New Orleans beats St. Louis, 31-28, in a battle of uninspiring 10-6 teams.
• 2004-05: Saint Louis beats Seattle, 27-20, in a showdown between a 9-7 team and an 8-8 team.
In other words, 49ers-Seahawks is a rivalry built on the run, rushed into existence because (a) Harbaugh and Carroll already knew how to be snippy at each other when Harbaugh slapped Stanford back to consciousness through USC and Carroll, who was prepping to beat feet back to the NFL.
And now they are together again, in the ninth What’s Your Deal Conclave in Century Link Field. They bring almost identically built teams (although Carroll has more fingerprints on the Seattle rebuild, since he started nearly from scratch) to Sunday’s game, and the two teams are fast enough to have constructed a heart-warming narrative of mutual hatred in only two years (2011 was not part of the building plan, since nobody thought at the time that this matchup would ever amount to anything).
But it has. The matter of how long it can endure remains to be seen -- after all, there are far more enduring loatheries in the game. Green Bay vs. the entire NFC North, all four teams in the NFC East and AFC North, most of the membership of the AFC West (though Oakland honors the rivalries mostly through the memories of a Civil War survivor who has been a noncombatant for too long), and New England and the New York Jets, though God only knows why.
For the moment, Seahawks-49ers is the best rivalry, because it is the freshest one, and our culture has developed a hatred for both institutional knowledge and casual research, thus making it seem like the U.S.-U.S.S.R. rivalry in international hockey.
But that one died too when the NHL went full international 30 years ago. Conditions change, you see, and so do divisional alignments. If the NFL eventually reassembles a new team in L.A. this fresh hate-fest may not have a long shelf life.
But for the moment, it’s the best we’ve got by a fairly wide margin. If that’s not good enough for you, you can always Tecmo Bowl your way through the 1997 NFC East.