Seahawks-49ers III: The XLVIII factor

Staff writerJanuary 19, 2014 

A Seattle Seahawks fan holds up a picture of cornerback Richard Sherman and a sign for the San Francisco 49ers before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game between the Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints in Seattle, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

TED S. WARREN — AP

Events monumental enough to require Roman Numerals usually are reserved for epic prizefights (Ali-Frazier III: The Thrilla in Manila), Star Wars (Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith) and, of course, the Super Bowl, which wasn’ t officially called the Super Bowl until Super Bowl III.

But the matchup Sunday at CenturyLink Field, where the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will collide for the third time since September, appears worthy of a title more bombastic than “ the NFC Championship Game.”

Something along the lines of ...

Seahawks-49ers III.

There.

“ It’ s going to be intense, ” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman predicted the other day. “ It’ s going to be physical. I don’ t know if there’ s going to be handshakes after this one.”

Sherman is as talented at delivering potent quotes as he is at smothering receivers, but his suggestion that postgame handshakes might be at a minimum was not overstated. Tensions preceding a contest with an X factor — specifically, an XLVII factor — will be further heightened by the NFC West opponents’ familiarity with each other.

While spirited rivalries are more associated with high school and college than the pros, the NFL’ s playoff system occasionally provides a football experience unique to the league: the chance for intradivisional foes to participate in a single-season football trilogy.

Since the origination of postseason play 82 years ago, 55 games have pitted teams that met twice during the regular schedule.

The Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans were the first to hold an encounter of the third kind, in 1932. That game, won by the Bears, was historic for another reason: It was the first football contest played indoors. (A winter storm forced the NFL to relocate its title game from Wrigley Field to Chicago Stadium.)

The most recent Game 3 between opponents? Last Sunday, when the Broncos held on to beat the Chargers in Denver.

Thanks to wild-card playoff expansion, introduced in 1978, “ rubber match” meetings have become an almost annual occurrence. Less commonplace is a conference title game between teams from the same division. Since the 1970 merger of the NFL and AFL, that’ s happened 16 times, with only five of the contests involving the NFC.

Some of those conference-championship showdowns rate as memorable.

At Broncos 20, Raiders 17, Jan. 1, 1978: The plot turned when Broncos fullback Rob Lytle attempted a goal-line leap that Oakland safety Jack Tatum stopped in mid-air, forcing a fumble scooped up by teammate Mike McCoy. The nose tackle was well on his way to the opposite end zone when officials ruled the play dead.

Despite replays showing Lytle had lost possession before crossing the goal line — this was years before the league implemented the review-challenge rule — the touchdown counted, giving Denver a 14-3 lead in the third quarter.

“Hell yes, it was a fumble,” Raiders coach John Madden groused afterward, offering the kind of candor that would make him more famous as a football commentator than as a Hall of Fame coach. “How can it not be a fumble when one of my guys comes out of there with the ball like that?”

At Steelers 27, Oilers 13, Jan. 6, 1980: A year after the Steelers drilled the Oilers, 34-5, for the 1978 AFC title, Houston was determined to settle the score. The Oilers appeared to tie it, 17-17, when Dan Pastorini connected on an apparent touchdown pass to Mike Renfroe alongside the back edge of the end zone.

Officials waved it off. The disputed call put the Steelers on their way to a fourth Super Bowl championship in six years, and created momentum for a replay review process tentatively adapted in 1986.

At Raiders 30, Seahawks 14, Jan. 8, 1984: Although it wasn’t much of a game — Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg threw three interceptions, and his replacement, Jim Zorn, threw two more — the fact Chuck Knox’s team advanced to the conference championship is remarkable.

The Seahawks finished 9-7, and two of those victories came against the eventual world-champion Raiders. In the wild-card round, Seattle dominated the Broncos, 31-7. The 1983 Seahawks still own the distinction as the only team to face two division rivals in the playoffs.

At Steelers 23, Ravens 14, Jan. 18, 2009: These teams are the Eastern Time Zone’s version of the 49ers-Seahawks, with defenses built to smash, and ground-control offenses content to score more points than the defense surrenders.

The AFC North rivals were never more bitter than in the 2008 season, when Pittsburgh’s regular-season sweep of Baltimore was the result of two short-yardage plays.

The feud finally was settled when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu returned an interception for a touchdown on the last play of a game best described by Ryan Clark’s vicious-but-legal collision with Baltimore running back Willis McGahee.

Clark was knocked out cold. McGahee spent the night in the hospital.

Packers 21, at Bears 14, Jan. 23, 2011: The 182nd game between the league’s oldest rivals was only their second postseason meeting, and sustained a long-standing series trend of stellar performances by Green Bay quarterbacks and, well, not-so-stellar performances by Chicago quarterbacks.

The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers didn’t enjoy a career day but had a career-defining moment when he threw a goal-to-go pass into the hands of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. All that separated Urlacher from a touchdown was Rodgers, who made up for his mistake with a score-saving tackle at midfield.

As for the Bears, starting quarterback Jay Cutler struggled before a knee sprain sent him to the sideline for the rest of the day. Cutler was replaced by the ineffective Todd Collins, who gave way to third-stringer Caleb Hanie, who sparked a too-little, too-late fourth-quarter comeback.

Concluded Packers linebacker Clay Mathews: “Kinda wish they would have had Jay in there, the way things were going.”

Ouch.

The most exciting postseason game between teams that already had played twice was also the most inspiring: An unscheduled 1965 tiebreaker between the Packers and Baltimore Colts, for the right to represent the Western Conference in the NFL Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns.

Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas was out with a knee injury, and his backup, Garry Cuozzo, was out with a shoulder injury. Because of roster rules then in place, the Colts weren’t allowed to sign an emergency quarterback off the street.

The job of quarterback was turned over to running back Tom Matte, whose repertoire was confined to a few basic plays scribbled on a wrist band prepared by Colts coach Don Shula.

Not that the Packers were in a mood for sympathy. Their quarterback Bart Starr, was down and out after suffering an injury on the game’s first snap.

The ugly, plodding scrum that ensued is the stuff of NFL legend.

“Baltimore’s attack, without Unitas,” wrote the Milwaukee Journal’s Bud Lea, “was about as daring as a 1920 lady’s bathing suit.”

Matte attempted 12 passes and completed five, for 40 yards. He ran for another 57 yards, and somehow managed to negotiate the issue into an overtime forced by the wobbly, maybe-it-cleared-the-post, maybe-it-didn’t field goal off the foot of Green Bay’s Don Chandler.

Chandler’s more accurate 25-yard field-goal attempt, more than 13 minutes into the extra quarter, finally gave the Packers a 13-10 victory. Vince Lombardi’s powerhouse went on to beat the Browns for the NFL title, and then went on to win the first two installments of a merged league’s version of a championship, something we now call the Super Bowl.

Tom Matte’s wristband went on to the Hall of Fame.

If the NFC West’s fiercest rivals produce even a modicum of the suspense the Packers and Colts engendered in 1965, Seahawks-49ers III will be regarded as a classic.

But until the Sunday kickoff at 3:30 p.m., the podium belongs to Richard Sherman and his pitch-perfect assessment of the competitive climate awaiting two teams playing for the third time in one season.

“There is no love lost,” he said, “and there is no love found.”

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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