There a few key elements that are essential to a burgeoning NFL rivalry.
Do the 49ers and Seahawks have it heading into Sunday night's heavyweight NFC West tilt? Oh yeah.
There has to be something on the line.
Seattle (9-5) is 1 1/2 games behind San Francisco (10-3-1) and is still vying for the division crown. They'll need a lot of help - the 49ers would have to lose at home to the hapless Cardinals in the season finale - but there's a chance. Plus, the Seahawks haven't yet clinched a playoff berth. So they need a victory. The 49ers took great pleasure in ending Seattle's playoff hopes last December.
You need promising talent at the league's most important position, quarterback.
Both teams have that. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is one of the top candidates for NFL offensive rookie of the year after leading Seattle to three straight wins by a combined score of 121-34. Second-year signal-caller Colin Kaepernick has led the 49ers to a 4-1 record since being inserted as the starter over Alex Smith, including a Sunday night road victory over the powerhouse Patriots.
The 49ers and Seahawks definitely have that, and you don't need to look any further than their head coaches. Pete Carroll (USC) and Jim Harbaugh (Stanford) knocked heads in the Pac-10 before taking their rivalry to the NFL.
It came to crescendo in 2009 when, after Stanford went for two up 48-21 late, Carroll asked Harbaugh, "What's your deal?" during the postgame handshake. Just this season, Harbaugh complained about contact administered by Seahawks cornerbacks in the 49ers' 13-6 Week 7 victory.
That prompted Carroll to bring up how Harbaugh had got all bent out of shape a few weeks earlier when Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said 49ers end Justin Smith "got away with murder" holding offensive linemen.
So the Sunday night showdown has all the makings of a great rivalry.
Actually, some of the hard feelings from both teams probably have to do with that fact that they're so similar:
- Carroll and Harbaugh are former college coaches with NFL bloodlines.
- Both have young, athletic QBs who surprisingly were given starting jobs over better-paid veterans (Alex Smith, 49ers; Matt Flynn, Seahawks). Wilson and Kaepernick were hotshot baseball prospects to boot.
- Both offenses now feature the pistol formation combined with read option to accentuate their QBs' talents and put pressure on opposing defenses. The 49ers have scored 357 points, the Seahawks 350.
- Both are run-first offenses led by stud running backs - Frank Gore (49ers) and Marshawn Lynch (Seahawks). Seattle is third in the league with 160.7 rushing yards per game, San Francisco second (162.9).
- Both teams are built around stingy defenses. The Seahawks have allowed 219 points, better than only one team: yes, the 49ers (218).
"There is something about them, man. They're basically the same team as us and I just hate that fact," Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor said.
Let the rivalry rage Sunday night.
Here are the three keys to the game for each team:
Contain Lynch: Since Marshawn Lynch debuted against the 49ers for the Bills in 2008, the 49ers have allowed eight 100-yard performances. Lynch has three of them. He became the first running back in 37 games to break the century mark against the 49ers last year, and had 103 yards against them Oct. 18.
Mind the play-action: With the focus on Lynch, expect the Seahawks to take a fair share of shots down the field off play-action fakes. Despite his 5-foot-11 stature, Wilson actually excels at the deep ball with great touch.
And one way to give him a better view of the field is to fake a handoff and either stay with a seven-step drop or roll him out. The Seahawks do both and it's very effective to receivers Sidney Rice, the emerging Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, and tight end Zach Miller.
49ers safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are one of the best safety tandems in the league. But they can also be overaggressive running downhill against the run, which is their forte. Just a couple of steps forward can be the difference between an incompletion and a 60-yard touchdown.
Throw it: Yes, Gore and the 49ers offensive line completely dominated the normally stout Seahawks front seven in the earlier meeting (175 yards total rushing yards with 131 from Gore), and the 49ers might be even tougher to defend on the ground with all the pistol formations and various line movements that go along with it.
That means youngsters Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane might need to play more snaps again. They did well against the Bills, but this is a completely different challenge against Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
Force Kaepernick to win it again: The Seahawks' struggles against Gore are well documented. And the schemes the 49ers are now running with Kaepernick will make it even more difficult, not to mention the emergence of rookie scat back LaMichael James.
But the Seahawks have to figure out a way to make the 49ers more one-dimensional, or they're extremely tough to beat. The Seahawks are going to need excellent games from defensive tackles Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane against 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin, who dominated them in the first matchup and is the key to the running game.
Kaepernick is good, but one of the unknowns is how he will react if the running game is stagnant and he needs to win the game himself.
Handle the stunts: The Seahawks have a very good left tackle in Russell Okung and he was very good in the first matchup. But the problem in defending 49ers end Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks) isn't with one-one rushes, it's with the end-tackle stunts the 49ers run between Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
Justin Smith will rush outside and hug both the left guard and tackle, while Smith dips inside untouched. Seattle had a tough time with those the first time around, as do most teams. And on the other side, the Seahawks are going to have to give right tackle Breno Giacomini help. He was dominated by the 49ers earlier this season.
If Wilson isn't given time to throw, the Seahawks will have a tough time winning the game.
Install the hurry-up offense: The Seahawks like to play their game and plod along with the running game, defense and then some deep shots. They can still play it that way, but if they want to go for broke, they should take a page out of the Patriots' playbook and go no huddle against the 49ers.
Being at home makes it that much easier for the Seattle. The Patriots scored 28 points in the fourth quarter against the 49ers on Sunday night. San Francisco entered the game allowing 14 points per game. The Patriots showed the way for other teams against the 49ers' excellent and physical defense: go fast, they'll get tired and they can't rush the passer.