Aldon Smith may think it’s just another game, but the verbal sniping between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks proves otherwise.
A primetime matchup between two of the NFL’s top young quarterbacks only adds to the attention.
Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are both looking to build on the best statistical performances of their respective careers Sunday night, when the 49ers visit the Seahawks in a meeting of bitter NFC West rivals.
San Francisco has won two straight division titles since Seattle claimed one of its own despite a 7-9 record in 2010. The 49ers edged the Seahawks to last year’s crown by one-half game en route to their first Super Bowl in 18 years.
Still, Smith isn’t prepared to put any importance on a September meeting between rivals expected to spend much of the season battling for NFC West supremacy.
“Uh, what about it? Just another game,” said the Pro Bowl linebacker, who set a 49ers record with 19 1/2 sacks last season.
The Seahawks would seem to disagree after 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took shots at them during the summer for having five players suspended for performance-enhancing drugs dating back to 2011.
“You always want to be above reproach, especially when you’re good, because you don’t want people to come back and say, ‘They’re winning because they’re cheating,’” Harbaugh said then.
Harbaugh allegedly further stoked the flames last year, honking his horn at the Seahawks’ bus after his team won 13-6 at home in Week 7.
Despite Harbaugh’s denials, Seattle is still insulted.
“Of course we’d take it that way,” safety Earl Thomas said. “When you carry yourself like a champion on and off the field, good stuff is going to happen for you. … I don’t think our coach (Pete Carroll) would do that.”
For Kaepernick, there’s a simple solution come Sunday.
“You go out and make plays, the chirping stops,” he said.
Kaepernick did plenty of that last week, completing 27 of 39 passes for a career-high 412 yards with three touchdowns to lead San Francisco to a 34-28 season-opening win over Green Bay in a rematch of last season’s divisional playoff.
He wasn’t nearly that effective in a 42-13 loss at CenturyLink Field in Week 16 last year, going 19 of 36 for 244 yards with one TD and one interception.
Wilson, meanwhile, had a career-high four TD passes in that meeting.
His start to 2013 was a bit shaky before eventually leading the Seahawks to a 12-7 win at Carolina last Sunday. Wilson was 1-for-5 passing before hitting 24 of his next 28 to finish with a career-best 320 yards, 43 coming on a go-ahead scoring toss to Jermaine Kearse midway through the fourth quarter.
“We just didn’t get it done the way we like. I contributed to that so I’ve got to make sure I help out and do the right things to make sure we get on track with what is really important to us,” Carroll said.
One area in need of improvement is the running game, which produced just 70 yards on 26 carries against the Panthers. Marshawn Lynch was held to 43 on 17 rushes.
Lynch, though, has 321 yards on 66 attempts and three touchdowns - one receiving - over the past three meetings with San Francisco.
Disrupting Kaepernick and the 49ers’ offense could be made easier with Cliff Avril expected back from a hamstring injury. The Seahawks, who signed the former Detroit defensive end to a two-year, $15 million contract, gave up 134 rushing yards and registered only one sack last week.
Seattle finished last season tied for 18th with 36 sacks, but eight came against the Packers in Week 3.
Avril’s 39 1/2 over his first five seasons led the Lions, and he got 20 1/2 over the past two.
Brandon Browner, suspended four games in December due to PEDs, is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury. One of his three INTs last year came at San Francisco, but Walter Thurmond is likely to make a second straight start if Browner can’t go.
Fellow cornerback Richard Sherman picked off Kaepernick in Week 16 and now will have to account for Anquan Boldin, Kaepernick’s favorite target last weekend. The veteran wide receiver grabbed 13 passes for 208 yards and a score in his Niners debut, and credits the performance to his rapport with the signal caller.
“The more we play together the better we’ll be,” Boldin said. “The great thing me and Kap have is communication. We’ve been able to communicate throughout the entire camp on every play.”
Smith could play a major role if he can pressure Wilson. He sacked him once in two meetings last year, but had 1 1/2 versus Green Bay.
Despite Smith’s feelings on the game’s importance, a victory Sunday will provide an early edge in the division before the Week 14 rematch in San Francisco.
“They think they’re the best, we think we’re the best,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said.