RENTON — Players on both sides used to downplay the intensity of the rivalry between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
It’s just another game, they used to say.
And then they’d go out and wage a three-hour gang fight until one of the teams came away with division supremacy and bragging rights that were exhaustingly exploited.
Well, they’re finally right: This is just another game.
On Thursday night, the 49ers play host to the Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium to see which of these 2-4 teams can edge its way out of the NFC West cellar.
San Francisco plays these days without departed tough guys such as Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Frank Gore, while the Seahawks go into the game worthy of being renamed the 45ers — in recognition of how many minutes of every 60-minute game they get something accomplished.
The most compelling absence in this meeting, though, is former 49er coach Jim Harbaugh, back in the college ranks with the University of Michigan.
Fans will be nostalgic for the Harbaugh-Pete Carroll friction that everybody denied but was obvious.
However, reporters who used to have to take part in the San Francisco teleconference call didn’t miss the cantankerous duo of Harbaugh and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which had all the joy of having to chat with your cable-TV supplier and your cellphone service provider in quick succession.
The call with new San Francisco coach Jim Tomsula featured none of the condescension, hostility and nasty attitude. It was more like talking to an uncle than a fascist dictator.
“I’ve been here nine years, and this (face-off against Seattle) has been a game every year; when these two teams play each other, there’s some excitement to it,” Tomsula said, when asked if there still was a rivalry. “Some of the hardest-hitting games I’ve ever been involved in have been Seahawks-49ers games.”
They tended to be close, too, as well as savagely contested. But the Seahawks have won five of the last six meetings, including the NFC title game at CenturyLink on Jan. 19, 2014 — on their way to a Super Bowl win.
That 23-17 thriller, decided by Richard Sherman’s pass deflection that was intercepted by Malcolm Smith, was a much better game than the Seahawks’ subsequent blowout of Denver in the Super Bowl.
The Niners certainly don’t resemble that team, ranking last in scoring offense in the NFL (16.7 points) and second-to-last in total defense.
San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman injured a knee so badly in that NFC title game that he missed the entire 2014 season, and when he returned, Harbaugh and many of the Niners’ former standouts were gone.
“Early on, it was quite different,” Bowman said of the adjustment to the new-look Niners. “As the season’s been going on, I’ve gotten used to the different guys, and realizing the challenge of getting us back to the type of play that we had for several years.”
Bowman has been impressed with Tomsula’s approach to integrating the new players into important roles. “I think he’s doing a great job; we all love him as a players’ coach,” Bowman said. “He does a great job of balancing how he’s coaching and how he treats us off the field, also.”
It was hard to tell whether the appreciation of Tomsula was a backhanded shot at Harbaugh or not. Seattle fans surely will miss those times when Harbaugh would get apoplectic on the sidelines and start into his Yosemite Sam routine.
The Seahawks look familiar to Tomsula, though. He said that looks at the game films and sees a talented team that still has its “fiery attitude.”
Thursday’s game is a lot more relevant than it might seem.
The winner of this one goes to 3-4, and given the nature of the NFC this season, it would mean that, as of Friday morning, only four teams in the conference will have more wins.
Give Bowman credit for acknowledging that the Seattle-San Francisco duel isn’t like every other game on the schedule.
“The rivalry started when we both got good and were similar in a lot of ways,” Bowman said. “I think it always going to be a special game between the two of us.”
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440