The picture on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated magazine does not flatter Jim Harbaugh.
Screaming and squinting, he appears on the verge of reaching Yosemite Sam levels of apoplexy.
The caption, though, proclaims: “Jim Harbaugh is softer (sort of) and saner (kind of) than you think.”
Fans should bet the “under” on that proposition this week, when his 49ers play host to Seattle, the team on the verge of deposing San Francisco as the NFC powerhouse.
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In his Wednesday teleconference with Seattle media, Harbaugh said he hadn’t seen that issue of the magazine. And when asked about the softer-and-saner assertion, he answered: “Aw, I don’t know.”
In fairness, the sane response was issued softly.
Yet, a win by the Seahawks (11-1) over the Niners (8-4) in San Francisco would be hugely symbolic because it would clinch the NFC West Division title on Harbaugh’s turf.
Harbaugh has not failed to win the division in his first two seasons, and has won games at an impressive .739 clip. But now? After losing the past two meetings with Seattle by a combined 71-16?
“We understand the task, the challenge of playing a great football team,” Harbaugh said. “We’re very enthusiastic about playing the game and also preparing for it.”
Despite recent narrow losses (by a combined four points) to New Orleans and Carolina, the Niners have won two consecutive games and are still heavily involved in the playoff hunt.
Harbaugh and Seattle coach Pete Carroll, with diverse approaches and dispositions, worship the same football commandments: Run the ball, take away the ball and smack the snot out of anybody carrying the ball.
And that tends to give this rivalry the feeling of a blood feud.
Niners such as Frank Gore, Justin Smith and NaVorro Bowman are prideful and powerful, and they guarantee a meeting with Seattle is going to be combative.
That’s perhaps most true of six-time All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, who Wednesday was more willing to expand on the meaning of this game than was his coach.
“I think the most important thing is they’re in our division, they’re our rival,” Willis said, saying the Niners are not willing to cede divisional dominance. “They’re the new team that’s supposed to be; and we feel like we’re still the team that is. We’re going to go out there this Sunday and play football … and may the best team win.”
Asked about the Seahawks’ 29-3 win in Seattle in September, Willis cited the irrelevance of history.
“We’re going to be ready; we have no excuses,” he said. “What happened in the last game? They won. This will be a new game.”
While overtaking Seattle for the division title is a long shot, the Niners have the chance to strengthen their grip on a wild-card playoff berth.
“We’ve talked about it the last couple weeks,” Willis said. “Every game we play from here on out is important to where we go. Getting into the playoffs, that’s what we’re trying to do. I feel like once we get in, anything can happen.”
Yes, a victory could earn them a trip back to Seattle in the postseason, depending how seeding and early rounds play out.
Willis is a big hitter on defense who helps set the tone for the Niners. When he plays against Seattle, he knows he’s going to be faced with the very personal challenge of meeting Marshawn Lynch at the line of scrimmage.
“I think being physical is the key to every game … this game particularly,” Willis said. “We’re both physical football teams. It’s going to be a test of wills. Who will be the team that’s physical to the very end, I feel, will win this game.
“There’s no question in my mind we’re going to take that challenge and rise to the occasion.”
So, there will be nothing soft and sane about this. It’s more likely to be fierce and violent.
As a good rivalry should be.