SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Trash talking between Richard Sherman and Michael Crabtree. Barbs traded between coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh. Incredible plays from Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.
The once-fierce rivalry between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco had a bit of everything during a heated stretch early this decade capped by Seattle's epic win in the NFC title game in January 2014.
Now for the first time in years, this game between NFC West rivals means a lot again heading into Monday night's showdown between the Seahawks (7-2) and 49ers (8-0).
"We haven't held up our end of the bargain the last few years, but this is an exciting game," said 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, one of the only remaining players in San Francisco from the heyday of this rivalry. "There's a lot riding on this game. It's meaningful. But, at the same token, we can't look at it as anything different. One of the reasons why we've been successful is we haven't changed. We've been doing exactly what we've been doing all year from training camp to now, just continuing to do the same things."
This is the first time since Thanksgiving night in 2014 where both teams have a winning record. Seattle won that game 19-3, prompting a Twitter apology to 49ers fans from CEO Jed York and a turkey celebration dinner for Wilson and Sherman at midfield of San Francisco's home.
Harbaugh was forced out following the season and the 49ers won just 17 games in the next four seasons, taking most of the steam out of the rivalry.
But now with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo set to make his first start against Seattle after missing both meetings last year with a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 and a much-improved defense in San Francisco, the 49ers have more than enough to match up with Wilson and the Seahawks in coach Kyle Shanahan's third season.
"They've come a long way in a short time, and Kyle's done a really nice job to turn the corner to get to this point," Carroll said. "Just judging off the last couple of years, they've always shown really good signs. This is a high-tech team, they're on their stuff; their schemes, their principles are really good. They've always been that, they just had trouble getting it all together and getting their wins but, they're together now. They really are sharp in all aspects of their team."
Seattle's pass defense used to be among the elite of the NFL. Now it ranks near the bottom of the league.
The Seahawks are giving up 278 yards per game through the air, ranking 28th in the league, and have been really bad in the past two games. Seattle gave up 460 yards passing to Matt Schaub and Atlanta two weeks ago, although the yards could be reasoned because the Seahawks built a 24-0 lead and the Falcons were forced to throw in trying to catch up.
Last week against Tampa Bay may have been more concerning. Jameis Winston was barely pressured by Seattle's meager pass rush and a quarterback with a knack for careless throws made none, throwing for 335 yards and two touchdowns.
Surprisingly, Seattle is 4-0 this year when allowing more than 300 yards passing, but those four wins are by a combined 15 points.
The 49ers suffered a big loss last week when linebacker Kwon Alexander went down with a season-ending torn left pectoral muscle. Alexander had 34 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception and four pass breakups and was considered the heart and soul of the defense. Rookie Dre Greenlaw will replace him.
"Since Day 1, the defense has been what it is because of him," starting middle linebacker Fred Warner said. "He was playing at a Pro Bowl level, but the things people didn't notice is what really made him stand apart."
Seattle proved last week it can establish the run game against the best run defense in the NFL. Seattle rushed for 145 yards against Tampa Bay, led by 105 yards from Chris Carson, the first rusher to top 100 yards this year against the Bucs. When Carson is churning out yards, it creates more opportunity for Wilson to work off play-action. San Francisco is first in the NFL at stopping the pass but just 14th against the run. Getting Carson and backup Rashaad Penny going on the ground will be crucial for the Seahawks to stay away from troubling down and distance situations.
The Niners should be getting several key pieces back this week, with left tackle Joe Staley expected to return from a broken leg that sidelined him in Week 2. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk could return from a knee injury and right tackle Mike McGlinchey (knee) also might be back.
Seattle has said all the right things about supporting struggling kicker Jason Myers, but the Seahawks would prefer not to see Monday night come down to a crucial kick. Myers missed a pair of field goals and an extra point last week against Tampa Bay. He was wide left from 47 yards, wide right on the last play of regulation from 40 yards and hit the upright with one of his PATs. Myers is just 3 of 8 from 40 or more yards this season. Seattle signed Myers in the offseason to solidify its field-goal kicking, but there's much more inconsistency than expected from a Pro Bowl selection last season.
The Niners also have questions in their kicking game after Robbie Gould injured his quadriceps in practice Tuesday. The team signed Chase McLaughlin in case Gould can't play.
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Renton, Washington, contributed to this report.