The 49ers and Seahawks Rivalry: A Brief but Exciting History

The Seahawks (left) and 49ers (right) have a historic rivalry.

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The Seahawks (left) and 49ers (right) have a historic rivalry.

Jack Freeman, Sports Editor

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The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers first played in 1976 during the Seahawks’ first year in the National Football League (NFL). The 49ers won 37-21, spawning one of the greatest sports rivalries of the past decade.

Meetings between the two teams were sparse following their initial face-off. The Seahawks played the 49ers six more times between 1976 and 2002, and the 49ers dominated, winning four of the games. Then, during a league realignment, the Seahawks moved from the American Football Conference (AFC) West to the National Football Conference (NFC) West, the same division as the 49ers. 

“I’ll admit I was excited for the Seahawks to join the NFC West,” local 49ers fan Frank Werby commented. “They were bad, and I was excited to win more. I never thought [Seahawks and 49ers] would become rivals like they are now.”

After the move, the two teams were scheduled to meet twice a year, once in Seattle and once in San Francisco. In 2002, the 49ers won both of the games, maintaining their upper hand. However, the 49ers then fired head coach Steve Mariucci and hired former Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson. Erickson led the 49ers into a downward trend, and they finished the season 7-9. Two of those losses were to the Seattle Seahawks. Despite that, the 49ers led the series 6-4.

Erickson and the 49ers’ record would drop even further; in 2004, they finished with a 2-14 record overall. Another two of those losses were to the Seahawks, and, unlike past meetings, they were not close games. These two losses tied the series at 6-6. Meanwhile, the Seahawks finished 9-7. Despite an early playoff exit, the Seahawks were on a huge upswing.

After two unimpressive seasons, Erickson was fired, and the 49ers hired Mike Nolan. Nolan did not carry them far, as they finished 4-12 record with the Seahawks handing them another two losses. In 14 meetings, the Seahawks had won eight, and the 49ers had won six. 

While the 49ers struggled, the Seahawks flourished. In 2005, they made their franchise’s first Super Bowl 40. While they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were trending positive.

However, the 49ers made a comeback: season two of the Nolan 49ers team was their best season in three years, matching the 7-9 record they had held previously. Two of those seven wins were against the Seahawks, who regressed to a 9-7 record.

In the following season, the Seahawks won both meetings, extending their series lead to two games. Still, both teams struggled, finishing with similar records to the previous year.

“Those were rough times for both teams,” local fan Bob LeBlanc remembered. “They both struggled for a bit, and I never thought of the Seahawks as rivals until recently.”

The 49ers barely reached 7-9 and fired head coach Nolan after their first five losses; he was replaced by Mike Singletary. The Seahawks fell from a ten-win team to a four-win team, and ten-year head coach Mike Holmgren stepped down. The Seahawks then hired former 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora.

Once again, the teams split the series of games, both taking one game apiece. In San Francisco, Singletary looked to be the future head coach, picking up the struggling team and leading them to an 8-8 season. Meanwhile, the Seahawks fired Mora after a five-win season. In his place, the Seahawks hired Pete Carroll, a coach from the University of Southern California (USC).

The teams once again split their meetings, but the Seahawks, with a one-game advantage in the division, would be headed to the playoffs. After an upset of the defending champion, the New Orleans Saints, the Seahawks were out of playoffs early once again.

The 49ers had not found their future coach in Singletary, and he was fired before the season ended. The team finished with a 6-10 record and were in the coaching market. The new coach would escalate this rivalry from that of a friendly division to one that had never before been seen in the NFC West.

“It’s official here in San Francisco,” ESPN insider Adam Schefter reported. “Jim Harbaugh has signed a 5-year deal to become the head coach of the 49ers.”

Kirby Lee – USA Today
Carroll and Harbaugh shake hands at midfield after a game.

Harbaugh and Carroll had been rivals from their college coaching careers, with Carroll at USC and Harbaugh at Stanford. That rivalry would carry to the NFL and onto the national stage. 

2011 would bring much-needed change to 49ers: for the first time in nine years, they were on top of both the NFC West and the league; finishing 13-3. They would also beat the Seahawks twice and provide a spark to further the rivalry.

On September 11, 2011, in San Francisco, California, the 49ers reportedly embarrassed the Seahawks. Rumors started to circulate that Harbaugh honked his car horn and purposefully annoyed the Seahawks team bus after the game.

After that, the 49ers beat the Seahawks in Seattle. However, Harbaugh continued to go after them, calling them “cheaters” because of the recent string of performance-enhancing drug suspensions occurring in Seattle.

Local media was now getting hyped for this rivalry, which had not occurred to such an extent since the 1980s. Every game built up like it a playoff game, and every game delivered.

“Every game was huge,” Werby recalled. “Between those two teams, anything could happen, and [the fans] always knew they were in for a show.”

Harbaugh’s 49ers played spectacular defense and a good offense. After the previous season, they were expected to be Super Bowl contenders and a near-lock for the playoffs. 

In week ten of the 2012 season, though, those expectations were dashed when the 49ers had to bring in their back-up quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, after their starter Alex Smith sustained a concussion. Although that game ended in a tie, many were worried that their playoff hopes were dead. 

That was not the case. In fact, the 49ers flourished. At the same time, Russell Wilson and the vaunted Seahawks defense, nicknamed “Legion of Boom,” were leading the Seahawks to an unexpected 11-win season. The two teams split their meetings once again, both winning their respective home games. 

The Seahawks would lose in heartbreaking fashion to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC divisional round. The 49ers took care of the Falcons and the Packers, and they were on their way to face the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. Yet after a blackout and a crazy ending, the 49ers lost to the Ravens by three points.

The rivalry finally reached its peak in 2013. The Seahawks had grown into a defensive powerhouse, and the 49ers, behind Kaepernick, led the most deadly double-headed attack of the decade. Both teams split the meetings once again in the regular season, but, for the first time ever, they played a third game in the NFC Championship game. 

Former San Francisco guard Alex Boone told Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today before the game, “I don’t know anybody in here that likes anybody on the Seahawks. If you find one, let me know.”

Jonathan Ferrey
Sherman tips a last-minute pass to aid the Seahawks victory.

Richard Sherman, a Seahawks player formerly coached by Harbaugh, saved Carroll and the Seahawks; victorious, they moved on to beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. 

The excitement surrounding the upcoming season was insurmountable, but, unfortunately, the 49ers had reached their peak. They dropped to 8-8, losing two points to the Seahawks and missing the playoffs. During this time, the Seahawks made their trip back to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the New England Patriots in an agonizing fashion.

The 49ers also had to deal with troubling rumors of a power struggle between general manager Trent Balke and Harbaugh, the head coach. Balke won, and Harbaugh was fired and replaced by long-time assistant coach Jim Tomsula.

“Do I miss [Harbaugh]? Probably not, but I miss beating him,” Carroll joked in one of his press conferences.

Due to the change, the 49ers fell to the bottom of the league, and their rivalry with the Seahawks went silent for the next four years. 

Still, little bits flared up, like when long-time fan-favorite Seahawks cornerback Sherman went home and signed with the 49ers. In 2019, the rivalry began anew, this time not out of revenge but rather necessity.

The 49ers started a staggering 8-0 lead while the Seahawks started decently, sitting at 7-2. The two teams would meet in week 10.

“That was one of the craziest games I’ve played in,” Wilson said. “Just two great teams going back and forth. That was fun.”

The Seahawks ultimately beat the unbeaten 49ers, but the 49ers led the division. And, after the two teams traded losses, they currently sit in the same place. Both teams look to win out, meaning the division and the number one seed in the NFC will be on the line in week 17.

“This is fun, to have the rivalry back again,” LeBlanc said. “This rivalry is what sports are all about. I cannot wait for week 17.”