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The game's best rivalries? Seattle, 49ers already talking way up list
June 17, 2013 7:17 pm ET
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning own the best QB rivalry in the NFL. (USATSI) Tom Brady and Peyton Manning own the best QB rivalry in the NFL. (USATSI)
Seattle might not be the first place you seek on a football map, but I guarantee you'll know where it is the second week of the NFL season.
Yep, it's where the Seahawks will take on the San Francisco 49ers.
That's because the Seahawks-49ers game is turning into one of pro football's must-see series. The teams aren't just good; they're among the best in the game. Their coaches don't like each other. Their players don't like each other. And, suddenly, there's plenty at stake when they meet, including boffo TV ratings.
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This, people, is how rivalries are born.
It's not just good enough to be competitive. Nope, you must really, really dislike each other, too, and someone lock the door and cue "Disco Inferno" by the Trammps. These two do. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh last week obliquely suggested the Seahawks are cheating, which caused Seattle's Brandon Browner to respond by saying he'd like to ring Harbaugh's neck.
Beautiful. It's June, and already these two are talking trash.You can't make this stuff up.
But that's why we watch. It's not just a good game; it's good theater, with drama, passion, angst and hyperbole injected into a series that suddenly threatens to become the West Coast version of Baltimore-Pittsburgh. I know, it's not there. Not yet. But it gets closer with every Harbaugh spitball. In the meantime, let's just say it's a rivalry that has everyone's attention, which means it just entered rarified air -- along with these guys:
These two not only regularly compete for the AFC North championship; they regularly compete with New England for ownership of the AFC, period. One or the other has appeared in four of the past five conference championship games (with both in the 2008 game), and they've been to three of the past five Super Bowls. But there's more than that. Look at the series history: Seven of the past nine games between these two were decided by three points. Three frickin' points. Moreover, look at what their players say about each other. It's not pretty, with Terrell Suggs once suggesting the Ravens had a "bounty" out on Pittsburgh star receiver Hines Ward -- a comment he later said was made in jest. Ravens' coach John Harbaugh calls the series "a defining type of rivalry," which makes sense if the definition is the best of the best of the best. This is Boston vs. the Yankees in baseball, UNC vs. Duke in basketball and Tiger vs. Phil on the back nine. The two teams are built around suffocating defenses, winning quarterbacks and organizational stability, and they bring an intensity and respect for each other rarely seen elsewhere. "If there is one place you want to play as a football player," Suggs once said, "it's definitely being the bad guy in Heinz Field." Now that's how you light a fuse.
Peyton Manning-Tom Brady
They're two of the best quarterbacks in pro football, and the only thing safer than their enshrinements at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is that they meet each other next year. You can look it up: Manning-Brady is on target for national TV Nov. 24 at Foxboro, the 11th time since 2001 they've met -- with 2008 and 2011 the only leap years. But there's a catch: Their teams did, in fact, meet in each of those seasons. It's just that their quarterbacks couldn't make it. Brady was hurt in 2008, and Manning was out in 2011. So they've been scheduled to play in each of the past 11 years, meaning they're one of the few stories with more sequels than Rocky. So Brady is 9-4 head-to-head vs. Eli's older brother. Only once in the last five times they met has the gap between the two been more than four points. Plus, now Manning has Brady's favorite receiver. Brady's been to five Super Bowls; Manning to two. Manning has four MVP awards; Brady has two. I think you get the idea. These are two of the most decorated quarterbacks in history, and enjoy them while you can. They won't last forever.
Of the rivalries mentioned here, none goes back further than this one. It's not the meanest. Baltimore-Pittsburgh qualifies there. Nor is it the most competitive. While the series is close (92-88-6 in favor of the Bears), it hasn't been close lately. Green Bay won eight of the last nine. It's just that there's something about Green Bay-Chicago, and it's more than memories of Halas and Lombardi, Butkus and Nitschke, Sayers and Starr. It's 22 NFL championships (including five Super Bowls) and 48 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's 186 games and fierce hitting and bitter cold and Super Bowl Shuffles. Granted, there haven't been a lot of championships lately. But look at the NFC North: Nine of the last 11 titles have been won by one of these teams, with the Packers -- which didn't win the 2010 title -- running the table that year in the playoffs before winning Super Bowl XLV. When you think of the division this season, you automatically think Green Bay. But then whom? Minnesota? Not unless you believe Adrian Peterson runs for another 2,000 yards. Nope, it's Chicago, and, yeah, OK, so the Bears lost Brian Urlacher. They're still the team Packers' fans love to hate.
The last four years these two took turns at the top of the NFC South, with Atlanta winning it last season while the Saints' Sean Payton was on sabbatical. So there's balance. But that's not what I like about this series. This is: It's charged with as much emotion as it is superb play. Remember when Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's single-season passing record? It was against Atlanta, and the Falcons didn't like how it went down. Up 38-16 with under five minutes to play, New Orleans passed on the chance to kill the clock with running plays and, instead, had Brees pass to gain the 30 yards he needed to set the record. Afterward, Payton explained the situation, saying he thought it was "appropriate," but the Falcons weren't buying it. "That's just who they are," one of their players told our Pete Prisco. "We'll see them down the road. We won't forget any of it." Turns out, he was right. It was the Falcons who ended Brees' record of consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 54. That was a 23-13 Falcons' victory last season where Atlanta intercepted Brees five times, a first in his career. It was also after New Orleans had broken the Falcons' unbeaten record and airport workers in Atlanta egged the Saints' team bus when their charter arrived. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, egg 'em.
Jim Harbaugh-John Harbaugh
Following Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore's John Harbaugh said, "There's no greater coach in the National Football league -- or in the world, as far as I'm concerned" -- than his brother, Jim, which is a nice thing for Big Brother to acknowledge. Only it begs this question: What does that make John? He played his brother twice and beat him both times -- including that 34-31 defeat in Super Bowl XLVII when the 49ers couldn't go five yards in three plays. These two have a total of seven years coaching in the NFL, with seven playoff appearances, four division titles, a combined record of 90-39-1 and five conference championship-game appearances. Nope, they don't hate each other, but neither is OK with losing -- which is good because, as the numbers tell us, neither one of them does much losing. I understand this is a stretch because the rivalry doesn't exist in head-to-head play. They've only met twice, for crying out loud. But don't tell me it doesn't exist in their bodies of work, because it does -- with one brother trying to outdo the other. Advantage, John.