Tom Brady and Bill Belichick vs. Peyton Manningwith the AFC title at stake is everything we asked for, a showdown that will ooze with genius and history. And, of course, it doesn't get any better than Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers going to Seattle to scrap with Pete Carroll's Seahawksfor the NFC title in another installment of the NFL's top rivalry.
The Seahawks' 29-3 win over the 49ers from Week 2 will air on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 3 p.m. ET. and at 10:30 p.m. ET.
The 49ers' 19-17 win over the Seahawks from Week 14 will air on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 4:30 p.m. ET. and Wednesday, Jan. 15 at 12 a.m. ET.
The greatest aspect of Niners-Seahawks is that both teams take their personalities from their head coaches, who go back a ways -- and have an apparently pure disdain for each other.
Part of the reason that there's no love lost between Niners and Seahawks fans is that these teams are very similar, from the defenses to the quarterbacks to the power run games; staring at an opponent who wins with your style fuels the fire. But the rivalry stems from the coaches.
Judge by any criteria you want: Harbaugh and Carroll are two of the best in the league, each having mounted respective organizational turnarounds in San Francisco and Seattle. Harbaugh has brilliantly guided the Niners to three straight conference championship games in his first three years on the job, ending a streak of eight seasons without a winning record. Carroll, meanwhile, made the Seahawks into the team that finished the regular season tied for the best record (13-3) in the NFL. But the roots of their rivalry stretch beyond the NFL and the NFC West -- back to California and the old Pac-10.
Carroll created a juggernaut at USC, encouraging competition at every position and attracting the high school level's top talent with rock-star flair -- though the program was eventually engulfedin controversy and scandal. Harbaugh, who morphed the academically elite Stanford into a college football power, never seemed to mind that USC was under a cloud of suspicion.
From 2007 to 2009, Harbaugh's Cardinal team met Carroll's Trojans three times -- and won twice. Stanford knocking off No. 2 USC in Los Angeles in 2007 truly got the ball rolling. The following year, Carroll's squad smoked Stanford, 45-23. Predictably, Harbaugh had a big smile on his face after Stanford poured on 55 points in a romp at USC in 2009 -- a game that prompted quite the rejoinder from Carroll.
You think things will get personal this Sunday? You bet.
Since Harbaugh followed Carroll to the pros in 2011, his Niners have beaten Carroll's Seahawks four out of six times -- but that hardly tells the whole story. The 'Hawks' two victories in that span both came in Seattle, and both were of the lopsided variety, including a 29-3 rout on national TV in Week 2 of this season. Yes, the Niners bounced back and beat Seattle in San Francisco in Week 14, but the fact remains that the Seahawks have owned the Niners in CenturyLink Field. And just watch what kind of facial expressions Harbaugh offers when he's peppered with questions about the 12th Man and Seattle's home domination leading up to Sunday's matchup.
Like everything in the rivalry, this goes even deeper.
"I've definitely noticed it," Harbaugh said in June. "You don't know what it is. Even when people say what it is, you don't know that that's what it is. For this, throw it out, or it's that. But that's usually the agents of the players themselves saying it's, for example, Adderall.
"But the NFL doesn't release what it actually is. So you have no idea. You're taking somebody at their word, that I don't know that you can take them at their word, understanding the circumstances."
And, as if he was going back to the days when he used to prepare Stanford to face down USC, Harbaugh was unable to resist offering up this gem:
"Play by the rules. And you always want to be above reproach. Especially when you're good, because you don't want people to come back and say they're winning because they're cheating. ... So we want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules. Because if you cheat to win, then you've already lost, according to Bo Schembechler. And Bo Schembechler is about next to the word of God as you can get in my mind. It's not the word of God, but it's close."
"He's a coach. He's never gonna be out there lined up against me. I wish he would; I'd put my hands around his neck. At the end of the day, I'm about winning football games."
I think San Francisco and Seattle are the two best and most talented teams in the NFL -- and they both draw from their coaches. One got the sense Harbaugh enjoyed Niners stars Colin Kaepernick and NaVorro Bowmanimitating Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's famous Superman celebration after big plays in San Francisco's divisional-round win over Carolina on Sunday. The always high-strung and emotional Harbaugh, who hasn't met a penalty flag he's liked, twirled like a top in that game, screaming at the refs. But make no mistake: These Niners, from the offensive line to Michael Crabtree to the defensive front seven, are super-prepared, smart, detail-oriented and tough as nails -- just like their coach.
Carroll, meanwhile, brilliantly used that "competition at every position" ethos to help general manager John Schneider assemble a winning machine in Seattle. The coach still chomps his gum and pumps his fist like a kid in college, creating a fun place to play. But make no mistake: These Seahawks, from film-room junkie Russell Wilson to the bone-crushing defense, are all business.
Carroll vs. Harbaugh with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line just feels right. It's been years of hate in the making -- and frankly, after this one, you can forget all of the other examples and all of the other comparisons.
One of these coaching giants is going to defeat and demoralize his fiercest rival to go to the sport's ultimate stage.
That's real. That's a rivalry.