SEATTLE -#8212; Green Bay was frosty two weeks ago and Charlotte, N.C., was raucous last weekend, but neither compared to what awaits the 49ers at the NFC championship game Sunday. If the Niners are to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey, they will have to beat what might be the NFL's best team in the league's loudest stadium, CenturyLink Field, a place where big touchdowns have, in all seriousness, set off seismographs used to measure earthquakes.
Even though his team has been drubbed in its two most recent visits to Seattle, head coach Jim Harbaugh believes his 49ers are up to the task this time.
"Our team's been in a lot of good primers," Harbaugh told reporters last week.
"Been through a lot of situations. Been through tough environments, whether it be weather or opposing stadiums. This team's been in a lot of situations. Been everywhere, man. Like the Johnny Cash song, 'we've been everywhere, man.'"
It's never a bad idea to channel the Man in Black, but the man in khakis may have been underselling Sunday's challenge, given that Seattle has lost just one home game in the past two years.
The 49ers' two beat-downs during that span have contributed to what has become the NFL's most authentic feud. Harbaugh and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll began their rivalry in the Pac-10 Conference when the former coached at Stanford and the latter at USC. Having found themselves paired again in the NFC West division of the professional ranks, their enmity seemed to filter through their players and fans.
And as the Seahawks ascended to challenge the 49ers' supremacy in the division, the rivalry only burned brighter. You think Starbucks-vs.-Peet's divided Seattle and San Francisco into partisan ranks? 49ers-Seahawks games have become can't-miss events, full of crushing hits and smack talk. And that's just in the regular season. This Super Bowl-or-bust matchup may be heard in Rohnert Park.
It's a triumph for the Fox network, which got the game everyone has wanted for weeks, and a triumph for fans of throwback football, who get to watch two teams that thrive on running the ball and playing stout defense.
If the 49ers have an advantage, it's big-game experience. Harbaugh is the first coach in NFL history to take his team to the conference title game in each of his first three seasons, and young Colin Kaepernick is the first quarterback to play at this level in each of his first two years as a starter. Last year, the Niners went into Atlanta to play for the NFC championship and emerged with a victory.
That 49ers team ultimately lost to the Baltimore Ravens (coached by Harbaugh's brother, John Harbaugh) in the Super Bowl, whetting the players' desire for another shot. So the "Quest for Six" continues. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowl championships, and the Niners aim to join them.
There won't be any more pro football games at creaky Candlestick Park, which is finally being mothballed (and eventually demolished) after hosting 49ers games for 43 years. But it might feel like an appropriate twist if the landmark stadium's final season were to help deliver another Vince Lombardi Trophy to San Francisco.
(Phil Barber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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