SANTA CLARA -- Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll are excited for the next episode of their coaching rivalry, one that promises more big-time football Sunday at Candlestick Park.

This could be the 49ers' last stand to defend their NFC West crown, which they've won in each of Harbaugh's previous two seasons.

Or it could be a division-clinching victory for the Seattle Seahawks, who have never won at Candlestick in three previous trips under Carroll, a San Francisco native.

"I feel real comfortable taking our team in there," Carroll said Wednesday on a conference call, "but it doesn't mean that their fans aren't going to go crazy and do everything they can to give their team every advantage."

Harbaugh is hoping for that Sunday, when his 49ers (8-4) try beating the Seahawks (11-1) and avenging blowout losses in their past two meetings, both at Seattle's deafening stadium.

"If this doesn't fire up the fans, then what does?" Harbaugh asked. "I suppose Abraham Lincoln riding across the field with a frock (coat) and a top hat, riding a horse, waving an American flag -- I doubt that would fire them up if this game doesn't fire them up."

That's quite an image, and one Harbaugh would prefer over seeing Carroll ride triumphantly off the Candlestick field with the NFC West banner.

Harbaugh's already had to offer the concession handshake after their past two games in Seattle: a 42-13 loss last Dec. 23, and a 29-3 rout Sept. 15.

The Harbaugh-Carroll rivalry, for all its storied drama, has taken a rightful back seat while their respective teams have developed into Super Bowl contenders.

So much has happened since their 2009 postgame confrontation from their Stanford-USC days, when Carroll asked Harbaugh after a 55-21 Stanford win: "What's your deal?"

Their deal now is not just to win the division, nor the NFC championship -- though last season's George Halas Trophy is displayed front and center inside a trophy case in the 49ers' lobby.

Super Bowl aspirations are strong on both sides. The Seahawks own a seven-game win streak and are closing in on the NFC playoffs' No. 1 seed. The 49ers are seeking a signature victory in their comeback from a Super Bowl XLVII defeat.

Both teams boast punishing defenses, run-driven offenses and hotshot quarterbacks, those being the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson.

"For me, they're just another team in our path on where we want to go," Kaepernick said. Kaepernick's career-worst game from a statistical standpoint came in Seattle on Sept. 15, when he was 13 of 28 for 127 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a 20.1 passer rating.

"Home-field advantage is always a big thing," Kaepernick said of playing at Candlestick rather than Seattle's CenturyLink Field. "You get to use cadence and audibles that you can't use on the road if you can't hear."

Candlestick is one road venue that Carroll knows quite well.

"My memories go all the way back to watching Willie Mays, getting to the 'Stick early and seeing him just play catch when he was warming up," Carroll, 62, said. "I had the good fortune of seeing a lot of games growing up, too."

Carroll was the 49ers' defensive coordinator from 1995-96. His favorite memory as an opponent at Candlestick: serving as a Minnesota Vikings assistant in a January 1988 playoff upset.

"It's got its own way about it. Its own style. It's classic," Carroll said of Candlestick. "I love the place. I've always loved the place. It depends on how you look at it."

  • Left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati did not practice because of sprained knees, but Harbaugh is not yet ruling them out of Sunday's game. Both Pro Bowl linemen were seen moving well on elliptical machines in the weight room as practice began.

  • Defensive tackle Justin Smith on the Seahawks' Wilson: "He just extends plays, moves the pocket. You see it all the time: Guys get close to him and he's running backward and whirly-birding 15 to 20 yards. He's a little bit quicker than some D-linemen, I guess, and I'm one of them."

  • Smith (shoulder) and tight end Vance McDonald (ankle) also did not practice. Smith typically takes Wednesdays off to rest, whereas McDonald is coping with a new injury.

  • Two key players returned to practice: cornerback Tarell Brown (ribs) in a limited capacity and tight end Garrett Celek, who practiced fully after missing the past three games with a hamstring strain.

  • Running back Frank Gore feels "great" but was limited again by an ankle injury. Gore admitted he is frustrated with his recent production. "But we're winning, and that's the big picture," he said.

  • Limited were Gore (ankle), wide receivers Mario Manningham (knee) and Jon Baldwin (calf), defensive tackle Ray McDonald (ankle) and linebacker Dan Skuta (foot).

  • Four key Seahawks did not practice: running back Marshawn Lynch (not injury related), defensive end Bruce Irvin (thigh) and wideouts Percy Harvin (hip) and Golden Tate (hip). Cornerback Brandon Browner (groin) was limited.

    For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.

    SUNDAY'S GAME

    Seattle (11-1) at 49ers (8-4),
    1:25 p.m. FOX