SEATTLE – The best rivalry in pro football has a voice.
The voice is that of Seattle Seahawks receiver Golden Tate, who is shouting across the field at San Francisco 49ers running back Anthony Dixon. A team employee holds Tate back. It's Sunday night at the end of another Seahawks rout of the 49ers – this time 29-3 – and Tate can't let something go, something Dixon wrote on Twitter a few days ago, something about how he had "Extra weight on the racks all week getting less sleep preparing for these Shehawks."
Tate wants to know about those weights. He is yelling now, eyes blazing, his neck tense.
"You better put a little more lift in it," he screams to Dixon.
Dixon squares off. Someone races behind him to pull him back. All around them are postgame handshakes, players trying to put a feud to rest. And yet in the din of the best rivalry in pro football, Tate and Dixon look about ready to draw their fists.
For the last few years, the best rivalry in professional football has been between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It has been a feud built on all the things that make a rivalry great: Good teams, Super Bowls, conference title games, fierce defenses and players who lay hits like piles of rebar. Age and attrition have taken their toll. But no rivalry is truly a rivalry unless both sides hate the other.
The Niners have the Super Bowl from last year. The Seahawks have won their last two games against San Francisco by a combined score of 71-16 and that gives the rivalry a twist that is impossible to deny. Seattle simply owns San Francisco now and that drives the Niners mad.
The best rivalry in pro football has a face.
And the face is that of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. He is everywhere now, a 6-foot-3 tower of a cornerback with long hair swinging from his helmet. Sherman is laughing. He is carrying two game balls into his postgame news conference Sunday night. One is the MVP award given to him by the NBC crew that broadcasts the game. The other is from his team, an honor bestowed upon him for holding dangerous, bruising Niners receiver Anquan Boldin to just one catch.
"A lot of things said this week," Sherman says, still smiling, as he placed the two game balls on the lectern before him.
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"Here we go," a stadium security guard mumbles.
Sherman, it turns out, has a lot to say about the 49ers. He is kerosene on the blaze of pro football's best rivalry.
"You guys expected something more Kaepernicky," he says in a dig at Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who threw for only 127 yards and was intercepted three times.
The talk was how Boldin was going to be the difference for San Francisco in a week when the Seahawks' most physical cornerback, Brandon Browner, was out with a hamstring injury. Sherman wants everyone to know he "countered that with physicality."
Now Sherman is playing to the cameras. He is wearing a tight black suit and a bow tie. He is looking into the cameras.
"What are the combined scores of the last two games?" he asks. "Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?"
He raps the lectern with his knuckles.
"How much of it is real and how much of it is fabricated?" he says. "That's real."
The best rivalry in pro football has a boiling point.
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The Niners reached theirs on Sunday. Days of talk, a roaring crowd and an hour delay for the thunderstorm left their players fuming. The Seahawks players spent the rain delay in their locker room with hip-hop blaring. Quarterback Russell Wilson took a shower. Some players sat at their lockers trying to focus. Others, like Sherman, danced because that's what feels good. In the fire of the best rivalry in professional football Seattle is relaxed. San Francisco is not.
"We expect guys to play disciplined ball," Sherman says.
And there came a moment at the end of the third quarter on Sunday night when San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith hit Seattle's right tackle Breno Giacomini in the back. A year ago Giacomini would have lashed back. He would have thrown a punch. He would have cost his team yards on the field. But this time he simply looks at the official and spreads his arms wide as if to say: "Did you see that?" The official throws his flag, 15 yards against Smith, pushing the ball deep into Niners territory. Three plays later the Seahawks score the touchdown that makes the score 19-3 and kills any chance the 49ers had of coming back in this game.
"Yes, it's hard to hold back," Giacomini says later. [Hitting back] is something I would have loved to do."
But the winners in all the best rivalries have learned to control the emotions that broil inside them. San Francisco, with 121 penalty yards, did not.
"It was not our finest hour," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh would say after the game.
The best rivalry in pro football has a gauntlet.
It is thrown late in the game, in the form of a red replay flag, after the Seahawks score their final touchdown. Seattle coach Pete Carroll tosses it because in the scrum of the kickoff with the score 29-3, the Niners may have fumbled the ball and the Seahawks recovered. Normally in 29-3 games stretching late into the night a coach won't throw the replay flag. Why prolong the game? But this is the best rivalry in pro football, and no way will Carroll let a turnover deep in 49ers territory go unchallenged, even if only 4:15 is left in the game.
Harbaugh will not complain about the replay flag. He will only say "that's football." But the move is the kind of knife twisting that keeps wounds open. It's like Sherman dancing with the Seahawks cheerleaders, the Sea Gals, after his interception of a Kaepernick pass. It's like running back Marshawn Lynch standing on the edge of the goal line waiting ever … so … long to step inside for a touchdown.
Eleven years ago, in the first marquee game in this stadium, 49ers receiver Terrell Owens celebrated a touchdown in the same corner where Lynch is posing. That night Owens pulled a pen from his sock and signed the ball in a blatant show of disrespect for the team to the north. Back then the Seahawks weren't good enough to counter. All these years later, Seattle is the fierce dominator of this rivalry, decimating a supposedly potent Niners offense without its most physical corner (Browner), its best pass rushers (Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons) and its top receiver (Percy Harvin).
Pulling a pen from a sock and signing a ball seems quaint now. The best rivalry in pro football is getting very, very good.