The evening game was the heavyweight fight of the day, after the finesse AFC matchup of Denver-New England.
Defenders swarmed and slammed. Yards were wrung out painfully, through the entire first half, which ended with the 49ers ahead 10-3, basically because Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick pranced through the vaunted Seahawk defenders for 58 yards, setting up a TD. But in the second half, whether through coaching adjustments or just athletes rising to the occasion, offense got in its punches here and there.
"It was definitely a physical game." said Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner. "Two tough teams. We definitely felt them, and I think they felt us, too."
“They made some very big plays. We made some very big plays,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It was a 15-round fight right down to the last.”
Wagner noted that the Super Bowl will feature "the best offense vs. the best defense."
The cork came unwedged in the third quarter when Seattle's Marshawn Lynch took the ball on third-and-1 from the Niners' 40, ran up the back of one of his linemen, and cut back right to open spaces. You kept waiting for somebody in the San Francisco secondary to run down Lynch from behind, but you were still waiting when he hit the end zone and began shaking teammates' hands.
The Niners survived a Kaepernick sack-fumble, and on the next play, the QB showed why he's special. On a full run, Kaepernick leaped in the air and threw a 26-yard rope to ageless Anquan Boldin in the end zone, Boldin outleaping the object of Eagles fans' long-distance love, safety Earl Thomas. Seattle had adjusted at halftime to try to take away Kaepernick's ability to beat the Hawks with his legs - he had 98 yards on eight carries in the first half, 32 on three in the second. Just then, it seemed he could win just as easily with his arm, but this proved not to be the case.
The Seahawks came back with a field goal. They then got lucky when Chris Maragos' tumble at the feet of punter Andy Lee was judged a 5-yard infraction, instead of the 15-yarder that would have given San Francisco a first down.
What looked at the time to be the play of the game - it was overshadowed eventually - came on fourth-and-7 for the Seahawks, from the 49ers' 35.
San Francisco jumped offside. Play continued. Wilson heaved it for the end zone, where he found hometown hero Jermaine Kearse, from the University of Washington, who had gotten behind Carlos Rogers. The Seahawks finally had a lead, a minute and 8 seconds into the fourth quarter. Their “12 th Man” crowd of 68,454 yelled loud enough to raise whitecaps on Puget Sound.
Kearse and Wilson confirmed afterward that the original play was not a bomb, but when Wilson's “double count” draws a flag on the defense, the receivers know to go vertical. Kearse said when he got past Rogers, he knew he would be getting the ball.
“When you have a free play, you take your shot,” Kearse said.
As a Lakewood, Wa. native, did he take a moment to let what he had done soak in?
“I tried to soak it in, but Golden (Tate, a fellow receiver) was, like, pulling on me,” Kearse said. “It was amazing to be able to make a play like that in front of these fans. They’ve supported me ever since I was in high school.”
Seattle then needed three turnovers to put the Niners away, something that will probably get a closer dissection as the matchup with the more polished Broncos gets closer. Kaepernick fumbled again, Cliff Avril smacking his arm as he drew it back, and this time, Seattle's Michael Bennett grabbed the bouncing ball. But the Seahawks, given first-and-goal at the 6, ended up fumbling the ball on fourth-and-goal, after fumbling it on the play before but having the play somehow blown dead, negating a recovery by NaVorro Bowman that cost the former Penn State linebacker what Harbaugh later said looked like an ACL injury.
No matter, Kaepernick gave the ball right back, with 7:37 remaining. Maybe he didn't think safety Kam Chancellor, between the QB and Boldin, could leap high enough to snag his sideline pass, but Kaepernick was wrong. This time the Seahawks ended up kicking a 47-yard field goal with 3:43 left that would set the final score.
Of course, that was not apparent at the time. In fact, it was way, way less than apparent as Kaepernick and the Niners drove downfield, at one point converting fourth-and-2 from their 30. They had first down at the Seahawks' 18 and time for maybe three more plays, with 30 seconds remaining, but they ended up running just one. Kaepernick's throw for Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone was good, but Sherman's leap was better. The NFL's dominant corner tipped the ball to linebacker Malcolm Smith, who ran around the end zone a little with it, then came to his senses and knelt, with 22 seconds remaining.
For Sherman, who switched from wideout to defensive back at Stanford to get away from Harbaugh’s constant scrutiny, it was the ultimate vindication. He celebrated it by taunting Crabtree and making a "choke" sign to Kaepernick, who said: "I didn't play good enough to win. Turned the ball over 3 times. I cost us this game."
Kaepernick’s season ended a play away from glory for the second year in a row; in last year’s Super Bowl, he got to the Ravens’ 7, down five points, but ran out of downs.
In fact, this was San Francisco’s third trip to the NFC title game in three years under Harbaugh, but it ended again with no Lombardi Trophy. The 49ers had won eight games in a row before last night.
“It’s great competition,” Harbaugh said. “Not many people get to be in this arena. Proud of our guys for the fight they showed today and all season.”
The taunting penalty might be forgotten over the next 2 weeks, but Sherman, the brashest of the NFC champs, certainly will not be.
Sherman afterward thanked Kaepernick for throwing at him at a crucial moment, and derided Crabtree as a "mediocre receiver," continuing a feud Sherman said began with an encounter last summer in Arizona.
"When you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver, that's what happens," Sherman said.
“We gotta keep getting better," Carroll said. His team dominated the NFC all season, winning the West and forcing the defending champion 49ers on a wild-card road trip through Green Bay and Carolina. "This ought to be an incredible matchup."
"It feels surreal right now," Thomas said. "I'm just so excited to be going to New York.
The last drive, he said, "was a 2-minute situation, and we were very prepared. There's no time to think. You've gotta keep clawing, scratching and biting until the clock hits zero."
Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant had some retroactive advice for Kaepernick, which Manning might be wise to heed.
“Don’t throw the ball to ‘Sherm,’ ” Bryant said. “Every time you throw it over there, he’s going to take it from you. Don’t try Sherm. He’s the best in the game.”
On Twitter: @LesBowen