SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It wasn't so long ago that the rivalry between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers was one of the NFL's best. From the start of 2011 through the 2013 season, the teams met seven times, including the playoffs, with the Niners winning four of those matchups.
"It was obviously a time, when the teams were both doing very well, that there was a lot riding on that game in a lot of the scenarios," Niners linebacker Malcolm Smith, who played for Seattle from 2011-14, said. "So you're very familiar with each other and there's always that rivalry aspect to it."
In the time since those epic battles, the Niners have gone through a precipitous downturn, while the Seahawks have remained the cream of the NFC West crop. In fact, the last time the 49ers beat Seattle on any field was Dec. 8, 2013. Just over a month later, in the NFC Championship Game, the Niners began a run of consecutive losses to the Seahawks that has reached seven.
As the Niners embark on a rebuilding process that is expected to take some time, they will get an early look on Sunday at just how far they have to go to get back in the mix within the division and to reignite a once-fierce rivalry.
"I think this is the team that we have got to go through to get out of this division and into the playoffs," 49ers safety Eric Reid said. "So we've got to play them at home and we've got to beat them. If not once, twice this year. So we've got to go to that place."
"That place" would be CenturyLink Field, a venue that has become one of the league's most intimidating and which has turned into a particular house of horrors for the 49ers.
San Francisco hasn't won in Seattle since 2011, when it escaped with a 19-17 victory over the Seahawks. In the six losses that have come in the Pacific Northwest since, the Niners have rarely even been competitive. In those six games, Seattle outscored the Niners 177-71, an average margin of 17.7 points per loss; only one of those defeats has been by single digits. In 2012 and 2013, the Seahawks won at home by 29 and 26 points, respectively.
Regardless of the setting, Seattle has had the 49ers' number. In the past six meetings, spanning the past three seasons, the Niners have not won and have been outscored 147-67, with the closest game a 2-point defeat on the final day of last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Niners have averaged more than 7 fewer points per game against Seattle than they have against all other opponents combined during that streak.
So what has been the secret to Seattle's success? As is often the case, it's best not to overthink it. The Seahawks have simply been the more talented team, with the type of continuity that comes from having coach Pete Carroll, his staff and many cornerstone players in place for an extended period of time.
Niners linebacker Brock Coyle, who spent the past three seasons with the Seahawks, said another part of the equation is that they never approached one game differently from another.
"Honestly, I think it was just because we treated every game the same while we were there," Coyle said. "It was just execution and nothing like rivalry and stuff. I know the last year before I got there, they had that NFC Championship Game that was huge. But really it's nothing like that [rivalry talk]."
Smith echoed a similar sentiment, pointing to a mindset that exists in Seattle that the 49ers are now attempting to instill under new coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. The idea is that every week should be treated like a championship game, no matter the opponent.
For evidence of how Seattle sees things, one needs only to hear Carroll talk about the Week 2 matchup and how little bearing recent history will have on the outcome.
"They're brand new," Carroll said. "It has nothing to do with anything that happened in the past. This is a brand-new program, brand-new coaches, style, attitude, quarterback, the whole thing. So we just start all over again. This is the first time we ever played these guys, and none of the stuff that's happened in the past has anything to do with what's going on now."
Of course, it won't all be completely new to either side. Shanahan offenses have faced Seattle a number of times over the years, including a 36-20 victory for the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC divisional playoff game in January. Likewise, Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was an assistant on Carroll's staff and is running a defensive scheme nearly identical to what Carroll has been doing in Seattle for years.
In some ways, the Niners have been watching Seattle film -- at least on defense -- since Shanahan and Saleh arrived.
"I think that's something that you do, you do a ton when we first get here," Shanahan said. "I do it the same offensively. You show how it's supposed to look, how you've done things in years past. That's an advantage of me being a coordinator for other years, I have tons of tape of not just Atlanta but Cleveland, Washington, Houston. There's really not an example that I don't have a clip on that, if a player is struggling with that, I can show him something from the past nine years to say, 'No, I've been in that position before. Someone I coached had this; this is how we handled it.'
"I think it's the same from a defensive standpoint. I know Robert, this is his first year being a coordinator, but being in the Jacksonville scheme, being in Seattle before that, he's got a lot of tape to show that, too. But once you get your own guys doing the tape and stuff like that, then you start to build your own libraries, and players definitely like watching themselves a lot more than other people. So you try to build that and get that in. But you never stop collecting, and if there's a clip that can help a guy, it's good to show schemes that are very similar, so there's more examples and reps that you can show people."