It was only three years ago that the NFC West was pro footballs laughingstock, as the Seattle Seahawks became the first team to reach the NFL playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season.
No one is laughing now. The Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have become two of the leagues true powerhouses. They will meet Sunday in Seattle in the NFC title game, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.
We just have to be prepared for whatever, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said after Sundays triumph over the Carolina Panthers. Seattle is a great team, offensively and defensively. They do a tremendous job when it comes to winning games. But were a good team, too. You cant take that away from us. So you have two good teams playing each other.
Other 49ers players, including safety Donte Whitner, called it fitting that the NFCs Super Bowl spot will be decided by a matchup of the division rivals.
They dont like us, Whitner said Sunday in Charlotte. We dont like them. The ultimate goal, the Super Bowl, is on the line. And youll see two physical football teams duke it out next week.
The four NFC West teams combined for 42 wins this season, comfortably the most for any division in the league (the AFC West was second with 37 victories among its clubs). The Seahawks went 13-3 during the regular season and secured the top seed in the NFC playoffs. The 49ers went 12-4, relegated to a wild-card postseason berth. The Arizona Cardinals missed the playoffs despite going 10-6 and even the last-place St. Louis Rams were a respectable 7-9.
The Seahawks playoff appearance at 7-9 came in Pete Carrolls first season as their coach.
Carroll has overturned the Seahawks roster and, after another 7-9 year in 2011, has churned out 24 regular-season victories and two playoff triumphs over the past two seasons. He went with third-round draft pick Russell Wilson as the teams starter at quarterback as a rookie last season, ahead of free agent addition Matt Flynn, and Wilson has become a star. Only a near-miss loss at Atlanta kept the Seahawks from facing the 49ers in last seasons NFC championship game.
Jim Harbaugh has had even greater success since arriving from Stanford in 2011 to take over the 49ers, reaching three NFC title games in three seasons. The 49ers are vying for their second straight Super Bowl appearance after losing to the Baltimore Ravens last season.
Each man in this locker room has to man up when we get to Seattle, Whitner said. The crowd noise cant affect us, their defensive line, their defense. Our defense, we have to go out and be the best defense on the football field.