From a strictly mathematical standpoint, the Seattle Seahawks don’t really need to win in San Francisco today.
Even with a loss to the 49ers, the Seahawks can clinch the NFC West with one victory in any of their following three games, two of which are at home. And with two wins in their final four games — or one win and a little help — the Seahawks will clinch home-field advantage. And it’s not like the Seahawks need to prove they can win in San Francisco, because any potential postseason rematch would be in Seattle, barring a complete collapse.
But don’t let any of that fool you. This is still a massively important game for the Seahawks. A Seattle victory at Candlestick Park today wouldn’t just be a division clincher, it would be a passing of the torch.
In many ways, the Seahawks already have passed the 49ers. They are three games ahead of San Francisco in the standings, they’ve blown their rivals out in the past two meetings, and with a younger roster, Seattle’s future appears brighter.
Yet those two blowout wins were both in Seattle — the Seahawks haven’t won in San Francisco since 2008 — and the 49ers are the defending NFC champs and have won two straight division titles. So for as much as they have done so far this year, clinching a playoff berth with an NFL-best 11-1 record, the Seahawks have one more hurdle to clear before the NFC West torch can truly be passed.
“They’re the new team that’s supposed to be, and we feel like we’re still the team that is,” is how 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis explained his feelings of the rivalry on a conference call.
If the Seahawks do see any significance in the chance to clinch the division title in San Francisco, they certainly won’t admit to it, and by doing so go against Carroll’s “every week is a championship week” mantra.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing this week,” receiver Doug Baldwin said. “Just the fact that we have an opportunity to come out of this week 1-0, that’s all we’re going to focus on this week.”
Baldwin shows a disappointing amount of restraint when facing the 49ers and Jim Harbaugh, his former college coach — at least if you’re somebody trying to write about the rivalry. But Baldwin did flash a little grin after finishing his answer, and when asked if there could be a better opponent to clinch against, he said, “No. And that’s all I’ll say.”
Safety Earl Thomas did go slightly off script, saying:
“Obviously it’s a division opponent, and you definitely want to dominate them, because it’s a certain rivalry. I know coach says it’s not a rivalry game, but we love playing games like this. It’s very physical.”
But that was about as inflammatory a statement as you were going to get out of the Seahawks during the week.
Yet while the Seahawks don’t want to make this game into anything more than the next one on their schedule — “We don’t really worry about the story lines or this that and the other, we just take it one game at a time. After all the dust is settled we’ll see what happens,” is how cornerback Richard Sherman put it — some 49ers seem fine building up the rivalry.
“I don’t know anybody in here that likes anybody on the Seahawks. If you find one, you let me know,” 49ers guard Alex Boone told USA Today.
Or as tackle Joe Staley put it in the same USA Today story:
“We don’t like them, they don’t like us. I don’t have a magic answer for why it’s so intense, it just is. It’s a physical game every time we play, and there’s just a lot of bad blood there.”
Maybe that’s just the 49ers being honest. Or maybe it’s a sign that they are the more desperate team, one that knows it has almost no chance of winning the division and instead must battle for a wild card berth. Unlike the Seahawks, the 49ers really need this win.
The 49ers are still a very good team and are quite likely playoff-bound again, but with a victory in their final game at Candlestick Park, the Seahawks can make a statement that they are, without a doubt, the new kings of the NFL’s best division. With a victory in San Francisco, the Seahawks can prove that they, not San Francisco, have perfected the art of winning with a run-first offense and a nasty defense.
So even if the Seahawks don’t need this win to be NFC West champs this season, or to earn home-field advantage, and even if they aren’t talking like it, this is a big moment for the franchise.
Win this one, and the Seahawks can, to borrow a line from Willis, make the 49ers the team that used to be.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.