The 49ers and Seahawks' fierce rivalry will be in full view before a national TV audience on Sunday night. And the stakes are high.
San Francisco (10-3-1) needs one win in its final two games to clinch a second straight NFC West title. The 1994 and '95 seasons were the last time the 49ers claimed consecutive division crowns, and wins the final two weeks would assure the San Francisco at least the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye.
Seattle (9-5) needs one victory to clinch at least a wild-card berth. Two wins and an unlikely San Francisco loss in the finale against Arizona would give the Seahawks the division title, although hopes of a division crown all but ended when the 49ers held on to beat New England last week.
Sunday night provides an opportunity for Seattle to prove its legitimacy.
The Seahawks' three consecutive wins and two 50-point outbursts caught the NFL's attention. But those three victories came against fading Chicago, Arizona and Buffalo.
Beat the 49ers and Seattle becomes one of those teams no one in the NFC wants to see in the postseason.
"In December you want to be the hot team," San Francisco running back Frank Gore said.
"We know that if we get the win we can win the division. They've been playing great," Gore added. "I think they got better as a team each week since they played us. We want to claim the division and the playoffs."
The 49ers must avoid any letdown from last week's wild 41-34 win at New England and solve Seattle's impenetrable home-field advantage. The Seahawks are 6-0 at home, their last loss at CenturyLink Field coming in December 2011 to the 49ers.
It'll be Colin Kaepernick's first venture into the loudest environment in the NFL, another chance for Seattle QB Russell Wilson to strengthen his late-season surge into top offensive rookie consideration, and another meeting between coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh.
"It feels good to know that you're playing for something," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "We have a playoff berth, but we want the division. And we also want to have that first-week bye, and we know we have to win this week first."
Reunion reveals a rivalry that runs deep
The reunion of Harbaugh and Carroll brings together a pair with similar coaching beliefs and diametrically opposite personalities.
They share a love of khakis, winning and not caring what others think about their coaching styles.
The two coaches traded barbs this week about not sharing Christmas cards with one another. Undoubtedly there won't be any birthday gifts waiting for Harbaugh when he shows up at CenturyLink Field even though he turns 49 Sunday.
"I understand they didn't get our Christmas card yet. I have to check the list," Carroll joked this week.
While there are little similarities in the demeanor of their coaches, there is no denying after 15 weeks how much the teams mirror each other.
Statistically, they are nearly the same. They are Nos. 2 and 3 in the league in rushing the ball, and also in total defense, the base principles each preach.
They rank Nos. 1 and 2 in scoring defense, with the 49ers slightly ahead by allowing one less point. Even numbers like time of possession average, penalties and sacks are nearly the same.
They've even punted almost exactly the same number of times: 49 for the Seahawks, 50 for the 49ers.
"I can't help but see that because they believe in playing big-time defense as well as us, they believe in the running game, which we do, and they have a very strong emphasis on special teams, which we do," Carroll said.
"I think that's really the three pillars of what we're trying to put together here, that's what I know we're dealing with. I don't know how they speak it or how they talk about it, but it's certainly what's obvious about their team."
Seahawks have morphed into a scoring machine
The belief about the Seahawks has morphed over the past three weeks as they have suddenly grown into a scoring machine.
Beginning with the fourth-quarter of their overtime win at Chicago in Week 13, the Seahawks have outscored their opponents 121-20 in the last nine quarters plus an overtime.
The offensive potency has been a mixture of Wilson's running and passing, and gashing runs from Marshawn Lynch, who has just 21 carries the last two weeks but rushed for 241 yards combined in those victories.
Not to be outdone, Kaepernick and the 49ers aren't struggling for points. Since Kaepernick took over as the starter on Nov. 19, San Francisco has topped 25 points in all four victories, with the addition of his big arm and running ability to the offense.
Seattle's defensive front was exposed in the first meeting by San Francisco's wrinkle of using trap runs. Linebacker K.J. Wright said at all the different levels he's played, he never saw a trap play until Gore came sprinting through gaping holes with defenders completely out of place.
Gore rushed for a season-high 131 yards and Wilson struggled through his worst game of the season, flustered by the 49ers' pass rush and key drops by his own receivers.
"It's a championship game. That's the way we approach it this week," Wilson said. "It's a championship game and we're going to have to prepare and play like it."
The 49ers' top-ranked scoring defense could be in for a major test Sunday night when the high-scoring Seahawks try to clinch their second playoff berth in three seasons and stay in the West race.
The 49ers have yet to show they can win three in a row this season, going 0-3-1 in their previous four chances. San Francisco has won four straight in this divisional matchup following a 13-6 victory on Oct. 18, but the Seahawks (9-5) are a much different team now with three consecutive wins and five in six games.
"The Seahawks are a hot team right now," said Kaepernick, who threw four TDs in Foxborough to earn NFC offensive player of the week honors. "Their defense is playing great. Their offense is putting up points. So we have to be ready."
Seattle's 108 points in those contests is tied for the third-most over a two-game stretch.
Rookie QB leading the way for hot ‘Hawks
"We're definitely clicking well,'' said quarterback Russell Wilson, who ran for three scores and threw for another against the Bills. "I've been on a couple of teams that have scored that many in college. But to do it in the National Football League, I mean that's really tough to do.''
No rookie QB since the 1970 merger had won his first six home games, but that's exactly what Wilson has accomplished.
Since he posted a season-low 38.7 passer rating in the loss at San Francisco, Wilson has completed 66.3 of his passes for 13 TDs with just two picks and a 111.3 rating.
Seattle is averaging 33.4 points in those contests – second only to the Patriots' 41.3 during that stretch.
"I'm just thrilled that (Wilson's) been able to continue to grow,'' Carroll said. "For a time, we were just trying to get the offense going and not screw it up and make sure he could keep growing. Well, we're past that now.''
While Wilson and Lynch - who is 121 yards shy of becoming the third Seahawk back to reach 1,500 – deserve much of the credit for Seattle's improved offense, the defense has been equally as impressive.
This unit has allowed 14.2 points per game and forced 17 turnovers during this 5-1 run.
Seattle has been winning without cornerback Brandon Browner, who's served half of a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing substances, but the news could get worse. Teammate Richard Sherman will have an appeal of the same suspension heard Friday, and if he loses it, he could also be forced to sit as soon as Sunday.
The Seahawks could also be without cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Marcus Trufant, both of whom are nursing hamstring injuries. Should they be unable to go, Seattle would be down to rookie Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell and Ron Parker in the secondary.
Those absences figure to make it more difficult to keep 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree in check. Crabtree has 23 receptions for 301 yards and two TDs in the last three contests.
San Francisco was the last visitor to win in Seattle with a 19-17 victory last Dec. 24.