Friday, January 17, 2014
SEATTLE — Russell Wilson talked this week of the need for the Seahawks to play “the best 60 minutes of our life” Sunday against the 49ers.
But the scope of this NFC title game is not nearly so finite, so tidy. It has ramifications beyond the three or so hours it will take to play those 60 minutes, and I’m not just talking about the Super Bowl berth that will be bestowed upon the winner.
The fact is, the game itself is merely the culmination of one of the most epic weeks in Seattle sports history. And that drama has actually been building slowly, with ever-increasing anticipation, all season, toward this almost inevitable conclusion.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. These teams have been on a collision course since last year, when the Seahawks began to match the prowess of the 49ers. Or, going back further, since Jan. 7, 2011, when Jim Harbaugh became coach of a San Francisco team that had gone eight years without a winning season.
Suddenly, this once-proud franchise had a savior, Pete Carroll had a twice-yearly (or more) renewal with a college coaching rival, and 49ers-Seahawks was on its way to rapidly becoming the NFL’s most compelling matchup.
Now the rivalry is being carried to its extreme, an occurrence that first required the 49ers to win two difficult road playoff games, in inclement Green Bay and in Charlotte against a torrid Carolina squad, and for Seattle to prevail against New Orleans. Only then were they assured a showdown so delectable it can’t be overhyped.
Though, goodness knows, we’ve tested that notion.
For Seattle sports, it doesn’t get any better than this. The story lines are so rich, so fraught with tension, that I can’t remember a week where the entire Puget Sound community, give or take a few holdouts, was so fixated on an upcoming 60 minutes. The growing anxiety and incessant debates are just part of what makes it so memorable.
I wasn’t here in 1995, but I’m sure the same feeling of restless anticipation accompanied the Mariners’ run to the division title. And that classic playoff series against the Yankees no doubt resulted in the same dynamic — preoccupied classrooms and a distracted workforce as all those activities suddenly became mundane time-fillers until the game started.
But that was nearly 20 years ago. The Sonics’ lone title was more than 15 years before that.
These bursts of all-encompassing championship fever are rare and wonderful things. The Sonics in the NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s Bulls in 1996. The Mariners’ blitz through the American League in 2001. And, of course, the Seahawks’ dash to their first, and so far, only, Super Bowl berth in 2005-06, which undeniably turned this town on its ear.
But beating the Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game, as memorable as that day turned out to be, just didn’t involve the same emotional investment as vanquishing the 49ers would. And even in that relatively short amount of elapsed time since 2006, a mere eight years, it seems that new technology and the advancement of social media has served to magnify the focus, and foment the fervor, to a much greater degree.
Not that it’s necessary against a foe like the 49ers. The zeal is self-generating and self-sustaining. San Francisco’s presence as the roadblock to a Seahawks’ Super Bowl merely amps up the stakes. The added element of danger, of risk, is what pushes this game over the top.
Seattle fans have spent so much time this year obsessing over a potential championship season that it has come to be seen almost as a fait accompli, the Seahawks’ birthright. But the 49ers — defending NFC champions, after all, and the hottest team in football since Michael Crabtree’s return — are obviously fully capable of ending that quest.
To have this magical season thwarted by the 49ers, of all people, would be such a deep, painful blow that the sting would be felt long after the terms of Wilson’s 60-minute mantra have expired.
Ah, but there’s another edge to this sword. Getting to the Super Bowl at the expense of San Francisco would be that much sweeter than beating, say, the Panthers again. It’s a risk-reward balance that will turn CenturyLink into a frothing mass of nervous energy on Sunday.
For 60 minutes, and beyond.