For a moment Tuesday morning, Jim Harbaugh sounded like a football fan more than a coach with vested interests.
Asked if he liked the prospect of facing the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks twice in the span of just 17 days, the San Francisco 49ers coach took a big-picture overview.
“Sure, it’s exciting football,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better.”
History supports his claim. Last season’s NFC title game matchup between these two was far more competitive and better played than the Super Bowl that followed.
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And of having to meet the Seahawks on Thanksgiving evening, quarterback Colin Kaepernick called upon memories of what it was like tuning in to the NFL after a big holiday meal as a youth.
“It’s a great opportunity, something I always looked forward to as a kid,” Kaepernick said.
But players and fans all know that Seahawks-49ers meetings are not the stuff of Norman Rockwell family gatherings as much as they are back-alley fist fights.
They’ve become the closest thing to a sworn blood feud as there is in the NFC West division.
So when Harbaugh says that this evening’s prime-time battle at Levi’s Stadium is as good as it gets, it’s something that even staunch foes can agree upon.
It’s specifically critical this time, since a loss would heavily dampen postseason hopes for either of these 7-4 teams.
The Seahawks under coach Pete Carroll have never defeated the Niners in the Bay Area — this being the first meeting at the new Levi’s Stadium.
But his Seahawks have historically been sharpest under the brightest lights, having won 11 of 12 prime-time games.
“We just take these games seriously, like we always do,” Carroll said. “We have a way we prepare that has just worked out. Hopefully it will work out one more time.”
Although players and staff on both sides protest that the outcome of the NFC championship game plays no role in motivation for tonight’s game, that’s hardly likely. That was Seattle’s ticket to the Super Bowl.
At the least, it’s evidence of how competitive this game could be. The Niners led 17-13 heading into the fourth quarter, and they had a shot into the end zone for the win in the final minute before falling 23-17.
How close was that game? Each team gained exactly 308 yards.
San Francisco’s Kaepernick rushed for 130 yards on just 11 carries, and Seattle back Marshawn Lynch responded with 109 yards rushing.
The defenses were led by spectacular efforts — the Seahawks getting a combined 26 tackles from Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor, and the Niners powered by 21 tackles among NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
And through 11 games this season, the two remain statistically similar.
If there’s a wild-card matchup, though, it’s the rushing of quarterback Russell Wilson, who in 84 carries has picked up 644 yards — just 40 yards short of what San Francisco top rusher Frank Gore has gained on 171 carries.
“He’s greatly talented and tremendous at running the ball,” Harbaugh said of Wilson. “He’s playing at a very high level, as always. I’ve never seen him not be good.”
On the other side, Kaepernick has struggled with the Seahawks defense, have thrown seven interceptions and three touchdowns lifetime against Seattle.
The Seahawks are one-point favorites on the Niners’ home turf. For every statistic or matchup that seems to favor one team, another tips it in the other direction.
With a nation of sports fans on their couches for a prime-time duel, and the two teams determined to sustain their playoff chances against a dreaded rival, it only adds to support Harbaugh’s claim.
Yes, it doesn’t get any better.