Coaches Jim Harbaugh (left) of the 49ers and Ron Rivera of the Panthers were teammates on the Bears for six seasons, playing for Mike Ditka. | Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
at a Glance
• NFC: at Seahawks 23, Saints 15
• AFC: at Patriots 43, Colts 22
• NFC: 49ers at Panthers, 12:05 p.m. (Fox-32)
• AFC: Chargers at Broncos,
3:40 p.m. (Ch. 2)
• AFC: Patriots at Broncos OR
Chargers at Patriots, 2 p.m. (Ch. 2)
• NFC: 49ers/Panthers at
Seahawks, 5:30 p.m. (Fox-32)
Super Bowl XLVII
At East Rutherford, N.J.
• AFC champion vs. NFC champion, 5:30 p.m. (Fox-32)
Updated: February 13, 2014 6:37AM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jim Harbaugh and Ron Rivera will turn Sunday’s playoff clash into something of a 1980s Bears alumni reunion when Rivera’s Carolina Panthers host Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers.
The third-year coaches spent six seasons as Bears teammates, soaking in the clashing approaches of coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
Rivera, 52, was a second-round pick in 1984. He was a linebacker in Ryan’s blitz-heavy “46 defense,” a legendary unit that dominated the team’s Super Bowl XX demolition of the New England Patriots in 1986.
Harbaugh, 50, was the Bears’ first-round pick out of Michigan in 1987 and began forging his “Captain Comeback” identity with them.
Rivera could be called “Coach Comeback” considering how disgruntled Panthers fans were calling for his job after a 1-3 start. But they won 11 of their last 12 games as the ever-steady Rivera stayed true to a blueprint he designed, in part, after watching Harbaugh drive his team to Super Bowl XLVII last season.
Now these franchises are virtual mirror images, buttressed by top-three scoring defenses, jackhammer run games and young, dual-threat quarterbacks.
“I have a lot of respect for what Jim’s done [and] the way he’s done it,” Rivera said. “A lot starts with who we played for in coach Ditka. You wanted to be in the foxhole with Jim Harbaugh. He hates to lose.
“There are a lot of things I try to emulate as far as what Jim’s 49ers have become — that big, physical football team. That is what I believe we’re becoming.”
Rivera’s toughened team went to San Francisco on Nov. 10 and won a 10-9 slugfest. But much more will be on the line Sunday.
Harbaugh aims to reach his third consecutive NFC title game. Rivera, meanwhile, hopes to notch his first playoff coaching victory.
Regardless of the result, expect both coaches to leave the field with their mutual admiration intact. Rivera says the only change between Harbaugh the ultra-intense quarterback and Harbaugh the coach is his age.
Harbaugh repaid the compliment. “He’s the same — very competitive, high-character individual,” he said of Rivera. “He’s a lifelong friend, great teammate, tough adversary.”
Rivera has regaled his team with stories of the vaunted ’85 Bears while hoping the ’13 Panthers can follow a similar path. His players want to help him join an exclusive club that includes Ditka, also a star tight end for the Bears in the 1960s.
“Coach Rivera always comes with stories about how good they were,” Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis said, referencing the ’85 club. “He’s proud he won a Super Bowl with those guys. ... Now we’re trying to put him in position where he can be one of the few to have a ring as a player and a coach.”