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Updated Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 05:02 PM

Niners-Hawks: 2 teams on top of their game

By Danny O'Neil
Seattle Times staff reporter

As good as it gets.

That's not just a statement on the quality of Seattle's grudge match against San Francisco on Sunday night at CenturyLink Field. It's a summary of how the Seahawks are playing, having won three games in a row and convincing coach Pete Carroll his team is playing its best at any point since he became Seattle's coach.

"Without question," he said. "In most of the critical areas we're just cleaning things up."

Now comes the division's reigning kingpin in a prime-time matchup whose importance transcends its playoff implications. Seattle can still make the postseason if it loses. San Francisco can still win the division if it is defeated.

But this game is a test to see whether Seattle has turned the corner. Seattle has shown it can rout lesser opponents like Arizona and Buffalo. Can it man up against a team like 49ers, who are 23-6-1 since Jim Harbaugh became coach and just last week beat New England in what some have called the best NFL game of the season.

"Being the competitors we are here in Seattle, we definitely want to be the best, especially in this division," safety Earl Thomas said. "I feel like they're kind of in the way. So I feel this is definitely a great matchup for us so we can show what we can do, and show the whole world what we can do."

Or at least the country after the game was moved to 5:20 to be broadcast by NBC. A victory would give Seattle its longest winning streak (four) since 2007.

"You can see that our young guys are growing," Carroll said.

No one more so than Seattle's rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, whose Week 7 game in San Francisco was the low point of his season. He completed nine of the 23 passes he attempted for a season-low 122 yards.

After that game, Seattle was 4-3 and Wilson had thrown eight touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions. Seattle is 5-2 since, Wilson has thrown for 13 TDs and been picked off twice.

The 49ers have an entirely different type of quarterback after Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith. Kaepernick will be starting his sixth game Sunday.

But while the quarterbacks are the focus, neither of these teams has been built around that player. At least not yet.

The 49ers and Seahawks are equally emphatic about running the ball, and each team would consider its defense the strength of its team. Throw in the fact that both are coached by men whose history was intertwined before they came to the NFC West, and you've got all the ingredients for a game that is as much about pecking order as the playoffs.

"It's like a backyard brawl," said Bruce Irvin, Seattle's rookie defensive end. "That's how I look at these games."

Because of the similarities in the way these teams play or the quality of their résumés in this season when the NFC West will have two winning teams for the first time since 2003?

"It's because we hate them, and they hate us," Irvin said. "This is a perfect situation. A perfect game. At the C-Link. This is a perfect scenario, man. This is what you play all year for. These type of situations."

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @dannyoneil


JIM ROGASH / GETTY IMAGES
Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, has an intertwined history with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll dating to their days as college football coaches.




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