It's just another game.
Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll, the "She-Hawks" vs. the "Forty Whiners," the two favorites to represent the NFC at Super Bowl XLVIII in New York this February.
"It's the most important game on our schedule because it's the next game on the schedule," Harbaugh said, when asked he'll get "a kick" out of playing the Seahawks in Seattle on Sunday. "I get a kick out of every week, watching our team compete."
But Harbaugh isn't fooling anyone who watched the first 18 NFC West showdowns between the 49ers and Seahawks. From 2002 to 2010, this division matchup was just another game on the schedule — two teams without any history fighting to climb out of the basement, an NFC version of the Jacksonville Jaguars vs. the Tennessee Titans.
Now, it's the hottest rivalry in football, the "What's Your Deal Bowl," the game that everyone circled on their calendar when the NFL released its schedule in the spring.
"We're trying to play as tough as we can play every time we go out, I think they kind of think the same way," Carroll said, adding: "It's part of the division we're in, it's part of the style. It's really just the makeup of the programs — we're very similar in the way we like to go after it."
For two decades, the 49ers trudged through their schedules without facing a true division rival. In the early 1990s, the team's biggest foe was the Dallas Cowboys, later in the decade it was Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.
The last time the NFC West featured a rivalry worth tuning in for was back in the 1980s when the Rams were still in Los Angeles, Jim Everett was under center and Kevin Greene was breaking through offensive lines and stalking quarterbacks around the league.
In 2002, the NFL realigned itself to its current eight-division format with the Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals joining the 49ers in a modified version of the old NFC West.
But the division proved to be the weakest in football for almost a decade. Over its first 10 years, the new NFC West produced two playoff teams in the same season only twice, it earned home-field advantage in the NFC only once and four times it produced a division winner that racked up less than 10 wins, including the 2010 Seahawks who went 7-9.
Enter Harbaugh stage right.
In two seasons plus a game under the fiery coach, the 49ers are 25-7-1 and they appear to be capable of putting together a New England Patriots-like decade. The Seahawks are now considered to be Super Bowl contenders, too, with Carroll, who jumped on board in 2010 after fleeing Southern Cal.
But the 49ers and Seahawks aren't the only NFC West squads that have turned things around in recent years. The St. Louis Rams went 1-0-1 against the 49ers last season under Jeff Fisher and the Arizona Cardinals are on the rise, too, with one of the best young defenses in the league.
Harbaugh and Caroll's squads are competing on a higher plain, though. The rivalry is more than just two great teams battling for divisional supremacy, it's Raiders vs. the Kansas City Chiefs with an extra splash of bitterness. The fire between the coaches extends back to the college game, when Harbaugh was reviving Stanford and Carroll was on top of the world at USC.
First, Harbaugh irked Carroll by suggesting he was planning to ditch USC for the NFL and then he ran up the score on the Trojans in 2009, prompting his nemesis to utter the now famous words: "What's your deal?"
It isn't just a rivalry between the coaches. Richard Sherman, who played for Harbaugh at Stanford, told Sports Illustrated that his former coach was a "bully" and after the 49ers' boss chided the Seahawks for their connections to performance-enhancing drugs in the spring, cornerback Brandon Brown said he'd put his hands around the coach's throat if he could line up against him.
Former college teammates Anthony Dixon and K.J. Wright had some fun on Twitter earlier this week, referring to each others teams as the "She-Hawks" and the "Forty Whiners," the only hint of hostility that's slipped into the media leading into Sunday's game.
Instead, everyone's playing the, "it's just the next game" card.
"Need to win the NFC West, that's what we're worried about," 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said.