By Danny O'Neil
The 49ers were the Seahawks' rival, then they became a benchmark.
On Sunday in San Francisco, the 49ers are something else entirely: They're next.
This game is no longer a grudge match. Not for Seattle, because if you think coach Pete Carroll spent this week working his team into a lather over facing this specific opponent, well, you haven't been paying attention to the way he's preparing his team. He was pretty blunt in saying there was no added significance to facing this 49ers team that Seattle has beaten twice in a row.
"Not to me," Carroll said. "No, I don't think so. We're just happy to have the opportunity to play a big game again, and the fact that it's in the division is pretty significant."
A victory would allow Seattle to not only clinch the division, but it would do so on the home field of this 49ers team that won the NFC West each of the past two years and reached the Super Bowl last season.
It would constitute a changing of the guard in the division, a passing of the torch. Two years ago the 49ers weren't just a team Seattle wanted to beat, but the team the Seahawks wanted to be, from the unrelenting rushing offense to the unyielding defense.
And going back to the start of the 2011 season, Seattle's series with San Francisco has traced the Seahawks' ascendance while the 49ers' scoring total has gradually declined. The 49ers beat Seattle 33-17 in September 2011, Jim Harbaugh's NFL coaching debut, then 19-17 in Seattle on Christmas Eve. The 49ers scored 13 points in each of the two meetings last season, beating Seattle 13-6 in October before losing 42-13 in December.
The Seahawks' 29-3 victory in Week 2 marked their graduation from preseason favorite to being a bona fide league heavyweight.
|• Michael Grey: They limit Frank Gore to fewer than 80 yards rushing.||• Dave Grosby: They score on special teams.||• Bob Stelton: They shut down Frank Gore, keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket and force him to pass the ball, and avoid costly penalties.||• Brock Huard: They finish with more rushing yards than San Francisco.||• Danny O'Neil: They score two touchdowns.|
They are two teams that are strikingly similar not in scheme or attitude, but in an uncompromisingly physical approach on both sides of the ball. Both rank in the top five in rushing yards this season, the Seahawks have given up the second-fewest points while the 49ers rank No. 3 in that category.
The 49ers are the team with the most to lose Sunday, no doubt about that. San Francisco is 8-4, in strong position to make the playoffs but only a game ahead of Arizona.
Meanwhile, if the Seahawks win any two of their final four games, they are not only guaranteed to win the division but will clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
"It's more of a must-win game for them than for us," Irvin said. "It's just another game, so we're just going to push it like it's just another game. Everybody knows what it is between us."
The Seahawks were a good team last season that has become great this year, and the question is just how dominant they can be.
They've played well enough to compensate for the loss of two starting offensive tackles for half of the season. They're deep enough that the absence of receiver Percy Harvin for all but 16 offensive snaps hasn't prevented Seattle from having the NFL's best record through 12 games.
On Sunday, Seattle will take the field in San Francisco with a chance to show just how much the pecking order in the NFC West has changed.
But the Seahawks are past the point of making a statement within the division or validating their success. Sunday is a chance to demonstrate the consistency they've developed.
"We just go out and play our game," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Every week is a championship week. We go out there and play our ballgame. Execute. We go out and worry what we have to do and we don't worry about anything else."