Mark Maske (c) 2014, The Washington Post. SEATTLE — The Seattle Seahawks overcame an inglorious start on offense and an early 10-point deficit to secure the second Super Bowl berth in franchise history. They mixed their typically rugged defense with a few big plays on offense, then hung on in the final seconds to beat the San Francisco 49ers, 23-17, Sunday in an intense and combative NFC championship game.
Linebacker Malcolm Smith’s end-zone interception sealed the outcome with 22 seconds remaining. The 49ers, seeking a winning touchdown, had driven to the Seattle 18-yard line. But quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s pass intended for wide receiver Michael Crabtree was deflected by cornerback Richard Sherman and grabbed by Smith.
Tailback Marshawn Lynch ran for a third-quarter touchdown and quarterback Russell Wilson threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse for Seattle. Placekicker Steven Hauschka provided three field goals and the defense did the rest as the Seahawks remained close to invincible at noisy-beyond-belief CenturyLink Field.
They’ll face the Denver Broncos on Feb. 2 in the NFL’s first New York-area Super Bowl. The game will match a Denver offense ranked first in the league during the regular season against Seattle’s top-ranked defense. The Seahawks lost their previous Super Bowl appearance eight years ago to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“They’re really excited about this, this accomplishment. . . . but they know we’re not done,” Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said of his players after Sherman celebrated the final interception by jumping into the stands.
The 49ers forced a turnover by Wilson on the game’s first play from scrimmage and led, 10-0, after a second-quarter touchdown run by tailback Anthony Dixon. They led, 17-10, after Kaepernick’s third-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Anquan Boldin. But the 49ers unraveled from there and the Seahawks scored the game’s final 13 points.
“It was a 15-round fight right down to the last,” 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh said. ” . . . Just one drive, one touchdown drive, and we move on.”
The fifth-seeded 49ers were playing in their third straight NFC title game since Harbaugh’s arrival and were seeking a return to the Super Bowl after losing to the Baltimore Ravens last year. They’d already won twice on the road, at Green Bay and at Carolina, in these NFC playoffs. They were attempting to hand the top-seeded Seahawks only their second loss at home over the past two seasons. The Seahawks went 15-1 here over the last two regular seasons and beat the New Orleans Saints eight days earlier in a conference semifinal.
The Seahawks overwhelmed the 49ers, 29-3, here in September. But the 49ers spent the week saying they were a different team now. Crabtree had been unavailable for that game and tight end Vernon Davis had exited with an injury. The 49ers won their final six games of the regular season and carried that improved play into the postseason with their triumphs over the fourth-seeded Packers and second-seeded Panthers.
Seattle had the league’s top-ranked defense during the regular season and the 49ers were fifth. San Francisco safety Donte Whitner had said the 49ers would have to be the better defensive team on this day to win this game, and teammate Aldon Smith wasted no time trying to bring that about. The outside linebacker stripped the ball from Wilson’s hand on the Seahawks’ opening offensive play and fell on the fumble. The 49ers took over at the Seattle 15-yard line but could manage only a field goal by place kicker Phil Dawson and a 3-0 lead.
The Seahawks’ first three possessions resulted in the opening-play turnover and two punts. Kaepernick, meanwhile, was serving as a virtual one-man show on offense for the 49ers. He’d reached 100 rushing yards by early in the second quarter. He weaved his way around Seahawks defenders for a 58-yard scramble that set up Dixon’s one-yard touchdown dive. That came on fourth down, after Dixon’s apparent touchdown on third down was overturned by an instant-replay review showing he’d landed on the turf just shy of the goal line.
Wilson finally got the Seahawks going with some improvisation, moving around to buy time before finding wide receiver Doug Baldwin behind the San Francisco secondary for a 51-yard completion. But the Seattle drive stalled from there and the Seahawks were left settling for Hauschka’s first field goal. The 49ers led at halftime even though Kaepernick, to that point, had only three completions and 17 passing yards.
The Seahawks got even in the third quarter when Lynch, after being limited to 33 first-half rushing yards, rumbled to a 40-yard touchdown on a third-and-one carry. But the 49ers had an immediate response with Kaepernick’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Boldin. They’d been fortunate on the previous play, keeping possession by recovering a fumble by Kaepernick on a sack. Baldwin’s 69-yard return on the ensuing kickoff set up another Hauschka field goal for the Seahawks, as the points suddenly began accumulating rapidly.
Seattle grabbed its first lead on Wilson’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Kearse. It came amid confusion on a fourth-and-seven play. The Seahawks first sent Hauschka on the field for what would have been a 53-yard field goal try. But Hauschka arrived late, after the rest of the field goal unit, and Seahawks called timeout, then sent the offense back on the field.
Kaepernick lost a fumble on a sack by Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril. Seattle took possession at the San Francisco 6-yard line but couldn’t score, as Wilson and Lynch botched an attempted handoff on fourth down from the 1. The 49ers appeared to have recovered a fumble on a third-down play on which linebacker NaVorro Bowman likely tore his anterior cruciate ligament when his left leg was caught beneath a pile of players, but the officials ruled the Seahawks had retained possession.
No matter. The 49ers ended up with the ball but gave it right back to the Seahawks. Kaepernick had a pass intercepted by safety Kam Chancellor, leading to Hauschka’s third field goal.
“I think this was a game that we all expected, two great defenses going at it,” Seattle’s Earl Thomas said.