The events at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Jan. 19, 2014 were the most intense, exhausting drama I’ve ever seen unfold on a football field.
I saw the St. Louis Rams hold off the Tennessee Titans by a yard to win the Super Bowl. I saw the 18-0 New England Patriots go down. I saw Antonio Freeman’s impossible Monday Night Football game-winning catch off the grass.
But what the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers put on in an eventual 23-17 Seahawks win was an incredible study in rivalries. Three years of intense franchise rivalry and disdain culminated on that field with the NFC title at stake. It was the end of what was the greatest rivalry in the NFL in recent memory.
That day was great because the Seahawks and the 49ers were the best teams in football and they were NFC West rivals who played each other twice in the regular season.
That loss was the beginning of the end for San Francisco. Of course, a year later, in a squabble with ownership and the front office, great San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh – who fueled the rivalry as much as anyone – departed to his alma mater at Michigan.
As San Francisco has fallen to the bottom of the NFL, Seattle has stayed near the top of the league. And the Seahawks still don’t have it easy in their division. As the 49ers nosedived, the Arizona Cardinals have developed into one of the best teams in the NFL the past couple of years.
Like the Seahawks and 49ers from three years ago, an NFC Championship game featuring two NFC West teams, this time Seattle and Arizona, is plausible.
As the 2016 regular season commences, Seattle and Arizona are among the elite teams in the NFL and an argument could be made these are the two best teams in the NFL.
What a challenge that is for the Seahawks. They have had to fight to get out of their own division even though they have been perhaps the NFL’s best overall team the past three years, going to two Super Bowls and winning one.
Yet, Seattle had to wrestle with an equally strong San Francisco team for years and now it’s the same deal with Arizona.
I spoke to someone who was involved with both rivalries and he said that the Seattle-Arizona rivalry hasn’t reached the same heights as the Seattle-San Francisco rivalry did, but it has potential because both teams are so equally talented
Off the field, there is probably more respect and appreciation between the Seahawks and the Cardinals than the 49ers and Seahawks. Seattle players Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin did not have kind memories of playing for Harbaugh at Stanford and Harbaugh and Seattle coach Pete Carroll had their moments in the college game when Carroll was at USC and Harbaugh was a young coach on the rise at The Farm. The front offices in Seattle and San Francisco even got in on the rivalry as they’d returned pick-up players from the other side on the waiver wire and from the practice squad.
Carroll and Arizona coach Bruce Arians are similar in their approach. They’re both laid back and very confident. There hasn’t been much off-field friction between these two teams.
But between the lines, there has been and will be plenty of intensity when the two teams meet in Week 7 in Arizona on Sunday Night Football and on Christmas Eve in Seattle in Week 16.
Last season, Arizona won a 39-32 thriller in Seattle in November then the Seahawks crushed the Cardinals, 36-6, in week 17 at Arizona in the season finale as both teams headed to the playoffs.
Longtime NFL scout Gary Horton thinks these two teams will have close battles this year and the race will last all season and perhaps into the postseason.
“They’re very similar,” Horton said. “They played great defense, they both do a lot of good things on offense, they both have few weaknesses and they are both really well coached and they both have good front offices. Both Seattle and Arizona carry themselves like a championship team. They just might be the best two teams in the league.”
Horton thinks a potential separation between these two top-notch division rivals may be at quarterback. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is 27 and in his prime. He had a great training camp and preseason and is becoming a top-level reader of defenses. Wilson seems to be getting better.
However, Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer will turn 37 in December and he has battled a lot of injuries. Palmer did not play well in a lopsided loss at Carolina in the NFC title game and Horton said he has not liked what he has seen on tape this preseason.
“It all really depends on Palmer,” Horton said. “I just don’t know if he can still play at a high level. If he can, Arizona can win it all. But so can Seattle. It’s so tight between those two in the NFC West.”
Seattle is used to this. But just with another division rival.