Dave Boling: Wounded 49ers dangerous to surging Seahawks

A well-rooted rivalry stands the test of time.

But this one between the Seahawks and 49ers is so new, created by the NFL’s shifting of geologic plates as recently as 2002.

Until the Seahawks were moved into the NFC West that season, they’d only met San Francisco six times in the preceding 27 years.

And the burgeoning divisional rivalry at first seemed to be with St. Louis. But that was based solely on a temporary competitive balance rather than best grounds for rivalry: geography and contempt.

This between Seattle and San Francisco, though, turned into the hottest feud in the league the past couple seasons because of the competitiveness, the relevance, the quality of play and the number of delicious subplots.

The head coaches had a history of simmering acrimony, the two young quarterbacks were among the best on the rise, some stars were openly hostile, and the rest of the rosters seemed intent on conducting the games like a heavyweight fight.

Is that all in danger now? Are these two about to become just biannual divisional opponents with little at stake beyond the nostalgia?

Seattle has won four of the last five meetings and is favored by a double-digit margin Sunday at CenturyLink Field. If the predicted comes to pass, it would be the third Seahawks win over San Francisco in calendar 2014.

At stake are the 49ers’ waning chances at a wild-card berth, while the Seahawks continue to aim to overtake Arizona for the division title.

A loss to Seattle might be further impetus for the 49ers to cap a season of disarray with shakeups that, according to speculation, already seem imminent.

Some Bay Area publications already are sorting through replacement candidates for coach Jim Harbaugh.

As a passionate sports fan, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll understands the glory of a great rivalry, and that might be part of his motivation for offering strong support for Harbaugh this week when he talked to Bay Area media.

“Sometimes you don’t see the magic that guys have,” Carroll said of Harbaugh. “I think he’s a fantastic football coach. He’s proven that; there’s no question about that.”

The stakes and circumstances, Carroll said, make the 49ers a dangerous foe at this point.

One of the primary adversaries in this rivalry, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, was asked if the departure of Harbaugh would diminish the rivalry.

“I think it would take away a few storylines,” he said, referring to the chilly relations between Carroll and Harbaugh, as well as the fact that both Sherman and Hawks receiver Doug Baldwin played for Harbaugh at Stanford but neither was drafted by him when he took over with the 49ers. “But the rivalry would be just the same between the teams and the fan bases.”

The rivalry for the fans, he said, is more based on “their own disdain for one another.”

Maybe. But it certainly would change things, in part because Harbaugh is so easy for Seahawk fans to caricature, and his tightly wound intensity makes him the perfect foil for the loose and joyful Carroll.

Another reason for Harbaugh’s value as chief nemesis is that he’s so good at what he does. That team was a mess, and he got it to three straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl.

Less than a year ago, these teams were so evenly matched that they turned the conference championship game into one of the greats in league history, each team gaining exactly 308 yards of offense, with the trip to the Super Bowl coming down to a dramatic play in the end zone.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick gobbled yards with his thoroughbred stride, picking up 130 yards on just 11 carries, helping the 49ers to a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter.

The defenses on both sides were brilliant as 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman (14 tackles and a sack) and Patrick Willis were countered by Seahawks like Bobby Wagner (15 tackles) and Kam Chancellor (11 tackles and an interception).

And in the end, Sherman made his leaping, twisting, end-zone deflection of a Kaepernick pass that Malcolm Smith intercepted to bring down the curtain on what was not as much a game as a mythological drama.

Had there ever been a victory so hard-fought? So well-earned? So satisfying?

That was the kind of glorious experience reserved for a true rivalry.

Fans on both sides will miss it if it’s gone.