Seahawks-49ers rivalry at new heights

RENTON — If Kam Chancellor wasn’t so beloved by Seahawks fans; if he wasn’t capable of hitting so hard that he once concussed Vernon Davis by hitting the San Francisco 49ers tight end in the chest, Seattle’s intimidating strong safety might have some explaining to do.

“You know what?” Chancellor said when asked to characterize the Seahawks-49ers rivalry. “I like that team.”

You like that team? Like the 49ers? As coaches Pete Carroll or Jim Harbaugh might say, what’s your deal?

“I like that team just because it’s a challenge and I’m always welcoming challenges,” Chancellor continued. “It brings the best out of you, and it makes you a better player so I mean any time you can get a team that comes in and plays hard and competes, anything like that, I’m all about it.”

Yet even if saying you like the 49ers counts as blasphemy to some folks around these parts, what Chancellor is getting at is what makes this rivalry, and especially today’s game, so exciting.

It’s one thing for two teams to dislike each other, it takes it to an entirely new level when two rivals are also two of the best teams in the NFL, and are, let’s face it, a lot alike. While their coaches’ personalities couldn’t be more different, the Seahawks and 49ers made it to today’s NFC championship game playing the same style of football, from their stifling defenses to their physical running games to the young, dynamic quarterbacks.

“We’re very similar,” safety Earl Thomas said. “That’s what makes it so great. It’s going to be physical.”

It will be physical, and despite what Chancellor says, there will be at least some bad blood, if not actual blood, between the teams when the game kicks off. While there is a definite level of respect between the two teams for what the other has accomplished, not everyone shares Chancellor’s “like that team” sentiments.

Cornerback Richard Sherman says he doesn’t hate the 49ers because he doesn’t hate anybody, but conceded: “There will be some passion, there will be some dislike — some strong dislike — and there will be some intensity.”

It’s hardly a coincidence that Sherman’s feelings about San Francisco might be a bit stronger than Chancellor’s. He, along with receiver Doug Baldwin, is part of what makes the NFL’s best rivalry so unique. The success of two teams in the same division would create some tension regardless of any other circumstances, but the fact that Carroll and Harbaugh have been going at it since their days at USC and Stanford, and that two of Seattle’s key players, Sherman and Baldwin, played for and didn’t get along with Harbaugh, it all helps elevate the rivalry to another level.

And now we have the culminating moment in the rivalry — the first playoff game between the two franchises with a Super Bowl berth at stake.

The rivalry has had its moments, to be sure, but nothing like what will happen at CenturyLink Field this afternoon. While neither could have known it at the time, that infamous 2009 “What’s your deal?” postgame handshake following a Stanford blowout win over USC was just an early undercard for today’s main event.

That 2009 Stanford-USC game was the last between Harbaugh and Carroll at the college level, but their personal rivalry was renewed in 2011 when Harbaugh took over the 49ers job.

After San Francisco won in Seattle on Christmas Eve that 2011 season, a 49ers assistant belted out a hearty “Merry Christmas” while exiting a quiet press box in the final moments of the game, one of many shots fired back an forth between the teams. Jim Harbaugh has criticized Seattle’s defensive backs for playing too physical, and Richard Sherman has responded by calling Harbaugh a bully. There have been Twitter back-and-forths between players, players snagged off the other teams’ practice squads, instances of one-upmanship between fans — Seahawks fans flew a 12th man flag in SF, 49ers fans got a billboard in Fife, etc. — and plenty of on-field trash talk.

None of that, however, compares to what is about to go down at CenturyLink Field. Sure Harbaugh and Carroll did everything they could this week to downplay any personal feud between them.

“Animosity?” Harbaugh said to Bay Area reporters. “No. Erroneous. Erroneous. It’s football. It’s competition.”

Carroll called Harbaugh “a really good football coach” and said that while the two aren’t friends, “I have great respect for what Jim has done. I think he’s a tremendous football coach. I don’t know him very well personally, so that’s it. That’s where it starts and stops, and all the rest of the stuff has really been … you guys have had a blast with it, but there’s nothing there. That’s it.”

But despite the two playing nice, and even if there really isn’t even a little bit of animosity there, you’d better believe those two hypercompetitive men would give just about anything to get a leg up on a coaching rival.

And no matter what the two coaches, or Chancellor, have to say, the latest and most important game in this rivalry will be as heated as football games come.

“There’s no love lost, there’s no love found,” Sherman said. “That’s how I’d characterize it. It’s going to be intense, it’s going to be physical. I don’t know if there’s going to be handshakes after this one.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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