What happened Thursday night was not only a much-needed victory for the San Francisco 49ers after their embarrassing loss to the New York Giants, but, as noted by Grantland's Bill Barnell, also marks the first time in recent memory that "the NFL was actually able to air a game between two NFC West teams on national television without anybody decrying what a terrible live matchup it was."
I've been a Niners fan for a long time, long enough to watch as Niners games went from being among the most-anticipated matchups, more often than not finding national television slots, to being games I read about in the paper the next day. There are entire stretches of recent Niners history that I am truly ignorant of as I just really wasn't paying attention. I'm sure this phenomenon is even more pronounced for some long-suffering St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, and Seattle Seahawks fans, especially ones, like me, who do not live close to their teams' home cities and are thus in many ways cut off when these teams are struggling. While I am not terribly bitter about this Dark Time, mostly because it allowed me to become far more aware of the league as a whole (just because San Francisco wasn't in the national discussion anymore didn't mean I stopped watching or reading about Pro Football), I am buoyed not only by the recent success the Niners have enjoyed under Jim Harbaugh, but the fact that the NFC West is no longer just a punchline to a terrible joke. (Barnell's piece does a phenomenal job demonstrating just how terrible things once were.)
And it's not just the Niners like it was last season. While I am not entirely pleased by the result of either game, especially as it is without doubt that one "victory" was not really so, the Seahawks kept themselves alive in their bouts against the intimidating Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, and ultimately walked away with wins, even if one should have an asterisk beside it. I agree that the Hawks got damned lucky against the Patriots, but the flipside of that coin is that New England shouldn't have ever let it get that close. Yet even as they boast victories over elite quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, the Seahawks have lost every divisional game to date. As a Seattle fan told me on Thursday as we watched the low-scoring, smashmouth performance our teams put on, the next three match ups are at home and it is notoriously difficult to beat the Seahakws at CenturyLink Field. He assured me the Niners wouldn't be so lucky in Seattle. I was just happy that we could both talk about our teams with some modicum of pride after a long, sad stretch of failures and embarrassments.
The other storyline to come out of Thursday night's game is yet another moment when the Seahawks found themselves acting as the dead albatross around the neck of Vegas sportsbooks. After having already defied the odds, and rational thought, when beating the Packers, Thursday night saw mountains of cash (Darren Rovel of ESPN has the figure somewhere between $150 million and $1 billion) shift to bettors who had the Seahawks surviving the seven- to eight-point spread when Jim Harbaugh declined a safety late in the game to both run out the clock and ensure that Pete Carroll and his team wouldn't get the ball back. While Niners fans without any money on the line likely saw that as a deft coaching decision, I'm sure there's a few who may never truly forgive Harbaugh for this decision. Even at the low-end, a swing of $150 million is going to ruffle some feathers.
The league is upset that this gambling storyline has emerged at all, perhaps in part because it once again raises the specter of the Seahawks' "victory" over the Packers which forced the league to end the officials' lockout. I, however, take some degree of optimism away from it: Three years ago, no one would have cared enough to make this big a deal about it.