Seahawks and 49ers play for a Super Bowl spot three years after 7-9 won the NFC West


San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, left, and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson preside over two of the NFL’s best teams just a few years after 7-9 won the division. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

It was only three years ago that the NFC West was pro football’s laughingstock, as the Seattle Seahawks became the first team to reach the NFL playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season.

No one is laughing now. The Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have become two of the league’s true powerhouses. They will meet Sunday in Seattle in the NFC title game, with a trip to the sport’s first New York-area Super Bowl at stake.

“We just have to be prepared for whatever,” 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said after Sunday’s triumph over the Carolina Panthers. “Seattle is a great team, offensively and defensively. They do a tremendous job when it comes to winning games. But we’re a good team, too. You can’t take that away from us. So you have two good teams playing each other.”

Other 49ers players, including safety Donte Whitner, called it fitting that the NFC’s Super Bowl spot will be decided by a matchup of the division rivals.

“They don’t like us,” Whitner said Sunday in Charlotte. “We don’t like them. The ultimate goal, the Super Bowl, is on the line. And you’ll see two physical football teams duke it out next week.”

The four NFC West teams combined for 42 wins this season, comfortably the most for any division in the league (the AFC West was second with 37 victories among its clubs). The Seahawks went 13-3 during the regular season and secured the top seed in the NFC playoffs. The 49ers went 12-4, relegated to a wild-card postseason berth. The Arizona Cardinals missed the playoffs despite going 10-6 and even the last-place St. Louis Rams were a respectable 7-9.

It was far from dazzling when the Seahawks and Rams tied for first place in the 2010 season with 7-9 records. The Seahawks prevailed on tiebreakers to go to the playoffs and beat the New Orleans Saints in a first-round postseason game.

But that didn’t quiet the debate about whether a team with a losing record belonged in the playoffs or, especially, deserved to host a first-round game, as those Seahawks did. Some observers contended then that the system needed changing. Others maintained that winning a division should bring the reward of reaching the playoffs and playing at home, no matter the record, and added that such issues of divisional strength generally are cyclical.

It didn’t take long for that cycle to make the NFC West formidable. The Seahawks’ playoff appearance at 7-9 came in Pete Carroll’s first season as their coach after he returned to the NFL, following far less successful stints with the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the 1990s, from the college ranks at Southern Cal.

Carroll has overturned the Seahawks’ roster and, after another 7-9 year in 2011, has churned out 24 regular season victories and two playoff triumphs over the past two seasons. He went with third-round draft pick Russell Wilson as the team’s starter at quarterback as a rookie last season, ahead of free agent addition Matt Flynn, and Wilson has become a star. Only a near-miss loss at Atlanta kept the Seahawks from facing the 49ers in last season’s NFC championship game.

Harbaugh has had even greater success since arriving from Stanford in 2011 to take over the 49ers, reaching three NFC title games in three seasons. He and the 49ers are vying for their second straight Super Bowl appearance after losing to the Baltimore Ravens last season.

Harbaugh did inherit a talented roster. But predecessors Mike Singletary, Mike Nolan and Dennis Erickson hadn’t made things work. The 49ers, prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, hadn’t had a winning season since 2002, under Steve Mariucci. Harbaugh won immediately with Alex Smith at quarterback, then made the switch to Colin Kaepernick at the position last season and reached the Super Bowl with the second-year pro.

The teams have similarly rugged playing styles. The Seahawks ranked fourth in the league in rushing offense during the regular season and were first in the NFL in both total defense, based on yards allowed, and scoring defense. The 49ers were third in rushing offense, fifth in total defense and third in scoring defense.

“Each man in this locker room has to man up when we get to Seattle,” Whitner said. “The crowd noise can’t affect us, their defensive line, their defense. Our defense, we have to go out and be the best defense on the football field.”

The Seahawks have gone 16-1 at home over the past two seasons, including Saturday’s playoff triumph over the Saints. They beat the 49ers convincingly, 29-3, in Seattle in September. The 49ers say they are a stronger team now. They were missing wide receiver Michael Crabtree then, and Davis exited that game with a hamstring injury. The 49ers closed the regular season with six straight victories and have won twice on the road, in Green Bay and Charlotte, in the NFC playoffs.

“We’re a totally different football team,” Whitner said. “We’re really hot right now. We understand that.”

Harbaugh said he’s fine with having his team’s chances of reaching another Super Bowl rest on a meeting with the Seahawks.

“Sure,” he said after the game Sunday. “Why not? Our team is excited to have this chance, have the ultimate chance. And we’ll be ready.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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