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San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks: Clash of the NFC titans

SEATTLE -- Richard Sherman called it last March, on that surreal Monday when the Seattle Seahawks traded for dynamic wideout Percy Harvin and -- before the football world had digested the news -- the San Francisco 49ers swung a tit-for-tat deal for ultra-physical wideout Anquan Boldin.

As the arms race escalated between these recently fierce NFC West rivals, Sherman was asked about the possibility of there being a third meeting between the teams at the conclusion of the upcoming regular season, with a Super Bowl berth hanging in the balance.

Now here we are, awaiting a stellar Championship Sunday that will feature an AFC title game clash between the greatest players of their era as an appetizer for the magnificent main course: Niners-Seahawks III, which looms as a potential Game of the Year.

And if any of Sherman's old friends from his hometown of Compton hoped to make the trek north to attend the game at CenturyLink Field in person, they received a figurative stiff-arm from the 12th Man: In making a limited number of remaining tickets available to the general public following last Saturday's 23-15 divisional-round victory over the New Orleans Saints, the Seahawks restricted the offering to those with zip codes in Washington and surrounding states (and Canadian provinces British Columbia and Alberta), leaving residents of the Promised Land (aka California, my home state) out in the cold.

The horror!

Somehow, in a world in which war, poverty, oppression, climate change and other daunting circumstances plague so many of our citizens on a pervasive basis, this became a thing. The Seahawks' franchise was labeled as everything from chicken to unconscionable by angry 49ers fans, with some suggesting that the move was illegal (ha), against NFL rules (it's not) and/or discriminatory (yeah, in the same way that a public university forcing a college student to pay out-of-state tuition is).

Cue the Dire Straits: "I Want My MTV!"

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On my Twitter feed, the rhetoric got downright ridiculous, with one respondent comparing the policy to Jim Crow laws -- another proud moment for social media in the 21st Century.

Never mind that we're talking about a relatively small amount of tickets that literally sold out in minutes; or that the Denver Broncos employed a similar policy for the AFC Championship Game they'll host Sunday; or that other franchises have done this in the past for playoff games; or that we live in a world in which, you know, ticket brokers and scalpers exist, not to mention signs in countless establishments reading, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."

I could talk about the tenets of our capitalist society or go on a riff about the bastardization of the word discrimination, but instead I'll give you a quote from another California resident who didn't have a problem with the Seahawks' deed: "I actually respect it, what you're trying to do for your team, put them in the best possible position to win that you can."

And thank you, Jim Harbaugh, for that bit of reasoned perspective. Which brings us to our second scintillating NFC Championship Game storyline ...

Those wacky khakis

Yes, I just mentioned Harbaugh and perspective in the same sentence, and yes, I have noticed a change in the coach's demeanor in recent weeks -- and I am not mad at him for it.

Simply put, after spending most of his first three seasons doing a pretty good impersonation of a humorless, psychotically competitive autocrat who is constantly on the grind, Harbaugh has started to loosen up and let his personality show, and the football world is better for it.

I recognize that guy. I love that guy. I used to party with that guy. Eighteen years ago, when Harbaugh was in the midst of his "Captain Comeback" Renaissance with the Indianapolis Colts, I wrote in Sports Illustrated, "If you like football, you simply must love this man."

He's not quite back to the "It's A Wonderful Life" Harbaugh, but for whatever reason, this hyper-competitive coach is finally letting his guard down in public.

Perhaps it's because Harbaugh, who earned his rock-star chops while effecting consecutive culture changes at Stanford and with the Niners, successfully confronted the first real mini-crises of his coaching career earlier this season. Twice, the Niners rebounded from two-game losing streaks, and they managed to defeat the Seahawks in December after consecutive beatdowns in Seattle in which they were outscored by a 71-16 margin.

Whatever the cause, Harbaugh's clearly trying to show his congenial side, and for that he deserves some credit. If Pete Carroll's relentless optimism has captivated a Seahawks locker room that mimics its coach's personality, Harbaugh has obviously connected with the Niners players over the past three seasons, so what harm is there in letting the outside world have a peek once in a while?

Just as George Seifert's against-type *Blame It On The Bossa Nova* commercial in the mid-'90s sent fans the message that the stoic 49ers coach could, indeed, laugh at himself, Harbaugh's documented affection for khaki pants is fulfilling a similar service.

After the Niners' 23-20 playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago, I waited for Harbaugh to emerge from an otherwise-emptied visitors' locker room and encountered a dude who was borderline giddy. We talked briefly about Colin Kaepernick's tremendous performance before the subject turned to the bone-chilling weather -- and I noted that the cold hadn't caused him to ditch his omnipresent khakis.

"I went with the Dickies khakis," Harbaugh said, smiling broadly. "Had to do it, even with all the layers underneath."

To his credit, he eschewed the Walmart khakis. Yes, that's right: Harbaugh's wife, Sarah, revealed in a radio appearance on San Francisco's KMVQ-FM that her husband buys $8 khakis from the famed discount retailer (photographic proof soon surfaced), that she really wished he wouldn't and that she preferred a flat front to his inevitable choice of pleats.

And when Jim got asked about the pleats at a news conference and smiled and made light of them in response, the sun came out in Santa Clara.

Now, about that shadow ...

Hey Joe

As the only journalist to whom Marshawn Lynch has spoken extensively in the past couple of years, I am well-aware of his eclectic group of friends. And the fact that Jennifer Montana is a part of his ever-expanding posse -- Hey, what can I say? Lynch's agent, Doug Hendrickson, knows *everyone* -- at least in a psychic sense, is not as stunning as it might otherwise seem.

That said, given that fans tend to see football through xenophobic eyes, I imagine some members of Niner Nation (sorry, Raiders fans -- I know that terminology belongs to you, but I needed it to pay off the xenophobia reference) are miffed that Mrs. Montana -- wife of the man I regard as the greatest quarterback of all time -- has partnered with the Seahawks running back to design a *Beast Mode Key* necklace, with proceeds going to Lynch's and Joe Montana's respective charitable foundations.

Conspiracy theorists would also note that Montana, the greatest of all 49ers, elected not to attend the Candlestick Park finale last month -- he told me that he chose not to cut short a three-day family getaway in which all four of the couple's children had returned to visit Northern California simultaneously. And some members of the "49er Faithful" might not have loved his comments about Kaepernick to USA Today's Jarrett Bell, my one-time buddy on the Niners beat back in the early '90s.

"I like his mobility and that he's getting the ball downfield," Montana told Bell. "But sometimes, he needs to be more accurate in the pocket with pressure. The game is changing. Nobody wants to throw with pressure anymore. But the guys who can win in this league are the ones who can make throws from the pocket."

If you're really a conspiracy theorist, you might view that more as a shot at Steve Young than at Kaepernick -- but I wouldn't read too much into Montana's comments. He was asked a question, and I believe he gave his honest opinion. And I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that Kaepernick, as tremendous as he has been in his brief run as the Niners' starter, has room for improvement.

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And while Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two quarterbacks who do belong with Montana in the greatest-of-all-time conversation, will deservedly get much of the attention on Sunday, Kaepernick and his Seahawks counterpart, Russell Wilson, represent the best of the next generation of passers -- and I expect both of them to elevate their already-impressive games at CenturyLink and treat us to a potential classic.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Now, about those picks ...

Don't hate -- appreciate

Because my bosses ask me to make predictions, I regularly choose not to defy them and reveal my picks to an easy-to-rile public, including my preseason call that the Seahawks would be champions at season's end.

It seems silly to come off of that now, so I'm picking Seattle to win a very close game on Sunday, and I'm going with Manning and the Broncos to pull out a tight one against the New England Patriots.

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Which, of course, convinces many of you that I am a "hater" of the Niners and Pats, and that a victory by one or both of those teams would prove that a) I know nothing about football and b) God exists.

Or not.

Let's be real for a second: Do I care who wins these games? No. Am I exceptionally confident that they will play out in the fashion I expect? Not really. Does my prediction (or anyone else's, for that matter) have anything to do with what will take place on the field come Sunday?


Listen, I know what it's like to be a sports fan, beginning with my childhood as a Niners diehard. I love my alma mater and care way too much about Cal sports -- every Cal sport. And don't even get me started on my three kids' teams in various seasons.

I know what it's like to get irrational.

Yet I also believe that, as rabid fans, you have a duty to fight against those nonsensical impulses and keep a shred of perspective -- and to try to enjoy the moment, rather than worry about perceived "haters" or slights or the words and deeds of those whose allegiances might lie elsewhere.

Most of all: Don't let it come to this.

Football is a wonderful game, and the men who play it at the highest level, though they might get in scraps on and off the field, generally respect one another and are motivated far more by competitive drive than enmity. And make no mistake: The competition is the thing. It's the essence of who we are as citizens, or at least part of that essence. And seeing two strong, bonded teams take the field and give everything in the pursuit of a championship is awesome and amazing and worthy of all of our admiration.

As fans and residents of the free world, you are allowed to process this as you please, and if your inclination is to lash out at critics (real or imagined) and/or assert that your team's success somehow says something larger about a region's or a fan base's superiority, knock yourself out.

My advice, however, is to let go of all of that and focus on enjoying the experience. When the players meet at midfield after the game and hug it out and give each other dap, that should be a sign that this is not life or death, and that at game's end, the purity of competition is capable of overwhelming the nastiness. We should all emulate them.

In other words: Have a great Championship Sunday, whether you're wearing khakis or a hoodie, whether you're mobile or hanging tough in the pocket and even if your zip code got excluded from a ticket scramble.


Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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