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Published: Sunday, December 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Next on Seahawks' Bucket List? The 49ers

  • The Seahawks' Leon Washington (left) and Michael Robinson celebrate after Washington scored a touchdown during Seattle's victory over the Cardinals in...

    Associated Press

    The Seahawks' Leon Washington (left) and Michael Robinson celebrate after Washington scored a touchdown during Seattle's victory over the Cardinals in a game earlier this month.

Pete Carroll likes his team, and with good reason.
In their third season under Carroll, the Seahawks look like a dangerous team, a complete team that can win with offense, defense and special teams.
Asked if this is the best the Seahawks have played in his three seasons here, Carroll didn't hesitate to answer, "Yeah, without question."
"There aren't many holes right now, and we're going to keep fortifying each aspect of that. ... We're doing some pretty good things here, and if you do enough of them, then you're hard to beat. That's where we're getting to now."
Yes, Carroll likes where his team is headed. He hopes this team is something like the one he had in his second season at USC. Those 2002 Trojans won eight straight to end the season, including the Orange Bowl, kicking off one of the most dominant runs in college football history. Maybe, just maybe, if the Seahawks take off in coming years, we'll look back on this season's finish as the one that started it all.
But (there's always a but, isn't there?) before the Seahawks can use this season a springboard for long-term success, they've got one nagging issue to tend to -- the San Francisco 49ers.
In the past few weeks, the Seahawks have answered a lot of questions while checking off some accomplishments that had eluded them in the past.
Three weeks ago in Chicago, the Seahawks got a road win over a quality opponent.
Two weeks ago against Arizona, they showed they were up to the task of burying an inferior opponent rather than letting them hang around, which was something Seattle failed to do against teams like Detroit and Miami.
Even last week's blowout win against the Buffalo Bills in Toronto was significant in that the Seahawks looked like a team capable of playing just as well on the road as they do at CenturyLink Field.
The one box the Seahawks still need to check off their bucket list, however, is beating the 49ers. San Francisco has won four straight against Seattle, including all three meetings since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach, and the Niners are one victory away this season from clinching a second straight NFC West title.
"They're at the top right now," linebacker Leroy Hill said. "They're at the top sort of looking down on us. We know that, they know that, and we've got to beat them. That's just what it is. We want to be a playoff contending team, and this is like a playoff game. If we want to say we're a good team or a great team, we have to beat teams like them."
With San Francisco ending its season at home against the woeful Cardinals, a division title is highly unlikely for the Seahawks whether or not they knock off the 49ers tonight. And Seattle can make the playoffs win a win next weekend regardless of what happens tonight.
Even so, this game is unquestionably huge; not just because the Seahawks can clinch a playoff berth, but because they need to prove they can beat the team that has had their number of late.
"It's definitely a huge game," center Max Unger said. "There's no real way around it. They've made the playoffs and we're trying to get there. We really need these next couple of wins."
And while Carroll won't admit it, it has to kill him that Harbaugh has gotten the better of him at the college and pro level. They're just a subplot of what is turning into one of the NFL's best rivalries, but it's an undeniably fun subplot, dating back to the now infamous "What's your deal?" postgame handshake between the two following Stanford's blowout win over USC in 2009.
A big part of why this rivalry is so fun is that, despite their coaches being polar opposites when it comes to personality, they have strikingly similar coaching philosophies. Both teams lean on stingy defense and powerful rushing attacks; both are sound on special teams; and both are becoming more dynamic offensively as the season goes on thanks to young, exciting quarterbacks.
"They're very similar," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "They run the ball, we run the ball. They have a young quarterback, we have a young quarterback. There are a lot of similarities. They play strong defense, they're No. 1 in scoring defense; we're No. 2 by a point. There are obviously a lot of similarities, and when you're that similar, it's going to come down to a few plays, a few small, minute details that are going to turn the game."
Yet as closely matched as these teams are -- like Sherman points out, the Seahawks have given up only a single point more than the 49ers over the course of 14 games -- the rivalry has been one-sided since the Seahawks won the season opener in 2010.
Eventually, if the Seahawks are going to accomplish their goal of owning the division, the one-sided nature of this rivalry has to change. And even if the Seahawks aren't likely to overtake the 49ers in the standings this season, they have every intention of sending a message to San Francisco that there is another contender in the NFC West.
"We know they've had our number these past few games, but it won't last forever," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "We know eventually we'll get a win, and it should happen on Sunday. They won't have our number too long."
Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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