Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox analyst Troy Aikman calls 49ers-Seahawks the "best rivalry in football right now."
And with the NFC West foes matching up in today's conference championship game at Seattle, it also sounds like a bitter one.
"There is no love lost. There is no love found," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. "It's going to be intense. It's going to be physical. I don't know if there are going to be handshakes after this one."
The 49ers are the league's hottest team. They have won eight straight, including at Green Bay and at Carolina in the playoffs. The division champion Seahawks are 16-1 at home over the past two seasons (1-0 in the postseason).
The Tampa Bay Times chatted with new Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who faced both teams this season as coach of the Vikings, to help break down the showdown.
"It's going to be a great matchup," he said. "They're two of the best teams, without question, very deserving where they are."
The teams split the season series, the Seahawks winning 29-3 at home Sept. 15, and the 49ers winning 19-17 at home Dec. 8. At Seattle, San Francisco committed five turnovers. And during the regular season, the Seahawks led the league with 39 takeaways and a plus-20 turnover differential. Said Frazier: "Usually in these types of games, whoever makes the fewest mistakes usually wins."
Seattle's CenturyLink Field is widely considered the loudest stadium in the NFL and one of the toughest road venues. Frazier said that noise plays a role in many aspects, including onfield communication and momentum. "That 12th Man is a reality," Frazier said. "If you're having trouble as an offense scoring, getting first downs, it can be tough. San Francisco is going to have to find a way to run the ball, kind of like New Orleans did (last week), get some first downs, quiet the crowd down. If you don't get some first downs, it can be an avalanche of noise."
The QB quandary
Frazier believes, like always, quarterbacks will play a big role, with the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson providing different challenges.
On Kaepernick: "It seems like he's growing as the year has gone on. He's gotten better. You can see the growth. He's become a better pocket passer. He's always been able to run and scramble. But he's become better at getting off his first read and throwing to his second read. That's part of growing at his position."
On Wilson: "His ability to escape the pocket puts a lot of pressure on your defense; when you've got everybody covered and all of a sudden he escapes for a first down. He moves around and allows the receivers to uncover. It makes it really difficult to defend because of his mobility."
What Seahawks must do
They must cash in when in the red zone, Frazier said, unlike the Panthers, who got just three points out of two trips inside the 49ers 1 last week. "You've got to find a way to run the ball and do more than kick field goals," he said. "They do a good job of not giving up points. So you've got to find a way to once you get into plus-territory to finish in the end zone. Make them have to get out of their comfort zone, which is being able to run the ball and play-action pass, and make them into a drop-back team."
What 49ers must do
Running the ball to sustain drives — and momentum — is key, Frazier said. "New Orleans had the right idea (last week)," he said. "But you've got to get first downs. (The Saints) had trouble converting third down, and that hurt them in the first half. Easier said than done."
Defensive players to watch
49ers LB Ahmad Brooks Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the strength of the 49ers defense is the linebackers. Brooks has led the way with 4½ sacks in the postseason.
Seahawks DE Michael Bennett
The former Buc has thrived in his first season in Seattle, including racking up two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a half-sack against the Saints last week.
49ers' Michael Crabtree
Crabtree didn't play in the teams' first meeting in September, but the 49ers are 7-0 since the receiver returned from a torn Achilles. The playmaker has opened up opportunities for tight end Vernon Davis, receiver Anquan Boldin and running back Frank Gore, and he has prevented teams from rolling coverages to one side.
Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch
Lynch rushed for a franchise postseason-record 140 yards and scored two touchdowns last week. In five career playoff games, the running back has five touchdowns and three 100-yard games.
Number of the game
6 Consecutive NFC title games decided by seven points or fewer dating to 2007, the longest streak for a conference title game — AFC or NFC — in NFL history.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.