SANTA CLARA — The build-up to the 49ers-Seahawks playoff game felt a bit forced.
These two teams haven’t been archrivals for a while now. One could make the case that true hatred between the two teams left when Jim Harbaugh and the Niners “mutually agreed” to end his time on the sidelines in Dec. 2014.
Even in 2019, the regular-season finale where the division was on the line didn’t carry much vitriol.
And maybe I imagined it, but didn’t we just spend a whole season declaring that the Niners vs. Rams was the NFL’s new “it” rivalry?
No, the Seahawks and 49ers went into Saturday’s playoff game as mere divisional rivals. There’s no love between the two teams, but I doubt that either team is obsessed with beating the other — the hallmark of a great rivalry.
That might have changed after Saturday’s game.
Safety Johnathan Abram was a dirty player with the Raiders for the first three years of his career. Now on his second team, the Seahawks, it’s clear little has changed.
And his dirty play Saturday might be where the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry was restored to something close to its former glory.
Early in the third quarter Saturday, with Seattle up 1, Deebo Samuel picked up a first down, broke three tackles, and pushed the ball deep into Seattle territory.
Abram came across the field to tackle Samuel, ending the play at the Seattle 15-yard line. But after Samuel was brought down, and Abram disengaged from the tackle, the Seahawks’ safety grabbed Samuel’s ankle, lifted the wide receiver’s leg, and, according to Niners’ players, including Samuel, twisted.
Samuel was in his second game back from an MCL strain that sidelined him for four games.
There was no flag on the play, but the Niners players and coaches flagged it in their minds — they won’t soon forget it.
“I think anger kind of took over,” George Kittle said. “I don’t know why you’d ever want to piss off Deebo. If you’re going to do that to him, you’re just going to piss off Trent Williams, whose one of the scariest people on the football field. you’re going to fire up our defense and get our entire team fired up. I don’t know what the point of that is.
That definitely influenced us and made us a bit angrier and a little meaner. It was definitely a poor decision on their point.”
The Niners got the last laugh Saturday, but in the years to come, there should be plenty more serious competition between the Niners and Seahawks.
So many — including myself — believed the Seahawks would be terrible this season after they traded away quarterback Russell Wilson to the Broncos for tight end Noah Fant and draft picks.
Instead, it was the Broncos who were terrible. As a result, the Seahawks, despite making the playoffs, will have the 5th pick in the draft (and also the 38th) courtesy of the Broncos. With the addition of their own picks, the Seahawks will have five of the first 84 picks. That’s a lot of young, cheap talent. It’s also a lot to offer in a trade this offseason.
The Seahawks are also estimated to have the sixth-most salary cap space in the NFL this upcoming offseason. They will be able to spend to their heart’s desire.
That’s a lot of ways to improve an already good team.
Clearly, the Seahawks’ brass knows what it’s doing. Under Pete Carroll, Seattle has posted three losing seasons in 12 years — one of those sub-.500 seasons, they won the division.
So whether Geno Smith is at quarterback next year or not, the Seahawks are positioned for bigger and better things in the future.
That means they’re set on a collision course with the Niners, who have haphazardly found stability at quarterback — exceptionally inexpensive stability, at that — with Brock Purdy.
It’s easy to imagine more playoff-like regular-season games — a la the 2019 season — between the 49ers and Seahawks.
Perhaps a few more actual playoff games, too.
And while a true rivalry requires more than one moment for fuel, the Niners and Seahawks might just look back at Abram’s leg twist as kindling for this new flame.
“Those guys…” Brandon Aiyuk said of the Seahawks. “We just love beating them.”
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