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Rivals Redux

A special weekend in the NFL.

4:01 PM, Jan 18, 2014 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Brady pretty clearly wants to win another Super Bowl and finish in at least a draw with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with four rings.  Manning is plenty competitive (the profession requires it) and undoubtedly lusts after another Super Bowl win.  His little brother, Eli, has two, after all, both of them won in games against Patriot teams quarterbacked by … Tom Brady.  This brings family passions and histories into the mix, maybe not as dark and primitive as the kind that Faulkner explored, but still …

Anyway, Manning sometimes seems to be working in a realm where he is listening most intently to his muse, unlike the ordinary, mortal player who just wants to win and get paid.

Well, enough of this.  Kickoff is at three, Eastern, and for a certain kind of fan, it will be like sitting down with a good book.

And, then, later in the day, it will be on to Seattle where the Seahawks will be playing the San Francisco 49ers in what is a true rivalry of the kind where, indeed, “these two teams don’t like each other,” and, in what is even more fun for the fan, the coaches really don’t like each other.

The teams are in the same division and, hence, play each other twice during the regular season. This year, each won at home. Seattle’s win was a blowout, while the 49ers won a close game.  San Francisco won the division last year. Seattle finished on top this year. Whoever wins this game will, of course, go on to the Super Bowl.

Just getting there would be keenly insufficient for the 49ers and their coach, Jim Harbaugh.  They lost the Super Bowl last year in the last seconds of the game.  Lost to the Baltimore Ravens, a team coached by Harbaugh’s brother, John.  Even in the hyper competitive world of professional football there has to be a lot of ambivalence tied up in these brother stories.  

But there is nothing ambivalent, none whatsoever, about the relationship between Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seahawks.  They really do not like each other and haven’t for a long time, now.  Since well before they held their current jobs and built their present teams into powerhouses that are rivals in the old spirit of, say, the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

The animus goes right to the top and back to a time when Harbaugh and Carroll were coaching college ball at Stanford and USC. Carroll had built a powerhouse at USC. His teams won national championships and his players won Heismans.  Some of these were later invalidated after USC was found guilty of recruiting violations, but while USC was on top and Carroll was still head coach there, his team lost a 24-23 shocker, at home, to Stanford, a 41 point underdog. 

USC beat Stanford, at home, the next year but was humiliated, again, in Los Angeles in 2009.  With the score 48-21 after Stanford had scored yet another touchdown, Harbaugh left his offense on the field to go for two.  Asked, on the sideline, what was up, he said, “I want to put 50 on those [bleeps].”

The two pointer failed. But Harbaugh got his fifty on another touchdown. With the final score, 55-21, the coaches met at midfield where a peeved Carroll said, “What’s your deal? You alright?”

To which Harbaugh answered, “Yeah, I’m good. What’s your deal?”

Both coaches went on to the NFL where they remain unfriendly rivals and their teams follow their leaders. This game will almost certainly be characterized by trash talk, taunting, penalties, and what legendary Texas coach Daryl Royal once called, “Some snot knocking in the okra.” No literary comparisons come to mind. This is just a plain, old-fashioned football rivalry.

And after Sunday, it will be down to two teams and one game. The finals. Which will, most likely, have a hard time measuring up to the semis. 

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