SEATTLE -- It was frustrating. Then dizzying. Then nail-biting.
When it ended, though, there was simply celebrating as the Seattle Seahawks beat their rival San Francisco 49ers 23-17 to advance to play the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, doing so to the delight of a CenturyLink Field record crowd of 68,454.
"It doesn't get any better," said Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who overcame a fumble on the first play of the game to lead Seattle back from an early 10-0 deficit, throwing the go-ahead touchdown on a 35-yard pass on fourth-and-seven to Jermaine Kearse with 13:44 left.
The victory wasn't sealed, however, until a Colin Kaepernick pass in the end zone intended for Michael Crabtree was tipped by Seattle's Richard Sherman into the hands of linebacker Malcolm Smith with 22 seconds left.
The play came on first down after San Francisco had driven from its own 22-yard line, seemingly poised to spoil the party.
Seahawks players, though, said they never doubted, remembering all the times this season when the NFL's No. 1-rated defense had come through when it mattered most.
"Yeah, we've got a bunch of playmakers all over the field, so we knew somebody was going to make a play," said middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. "I thought he was going to pick it or tip it. It was dumb (by Kaepernick). He didn't really throw it far enough to where the player could catch it, and you know we've got corners."
Indeed Seattle does, and Sherman let everyone know it afterward, giving a choke sign he said was meant for Kaepernick, and taunting Crabtree, who he later emphatically called in his postgame news conference "a mediocre receiver."
"When you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver, that's what happens," Sherman said. "Game."
It was then left to Wilson to take three snaps to run off the final seconds and fulfill a goal he had presented to his teammates during a players-only meeting before the season. In that meeting, Wilson said he told them, "Why not us?"
"We believed from the beginning of the year we could get there," Wilson said.
It didn't look good early, though, when Wilson fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, leading to a San Francisco field goal.
Kaepernick then used his running (he had 98 of his 130 yards in the first half) to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Anthony Dixon.
A 51-yard Wilson to Doug Baldwin pass set up a Steven Hauschka 32-yard field goal that cut the lead to 10-3 at halftime. Still, there were nervous murmurs throughout the CenturyLink Field crowd at the half.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, though, said it was business as usual in the locker room, saying he reiterated a message from a Friday meeting that "We needed to take the next step, finish this football game playing better than they did longer. And our guys got that done."
A 40-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch on Seattle's first second-half possession that tied the game got it started, kicking off a second half filled with big plays and momentum-changing moments on each side.
After a Kaepernick 26-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin made it 17-10, a 69-yard kickoff return by Baldwin set up another Hauschka field goal (of 40 yards) to make it 17-13 entering the final quarter.
On its first possession of the fourth quarter, Seattle faced a fourth-and-seven at the 49ers 35, and a big decision--attempt a long field goal, or go for it?
Initially, the field goal team went out, with Wilson saying "I'm begging on the sidelines" to instead go for it. After a time out, Carroll changed his mind. As San Francisco's Aldon Smith jumped offsides on a double-count by Wilson, Seattle changed its play on the fly, receivers running deep instead, knowing there was no risk to an interception.
"If they jumped offsides we were going to try to take a shot down field, and sure enough they did," Wilson said.
Wilson threw into the end zone where Kearse caught it in traffic, tumbling to the ground as he did.
Cliff Avril then forced a Kaepernick fumble that Seattle returned to the 6, and it looked like it might go from hard to easy quickly. Instead, a bad exchange between Wilson and Lynch led to a fumble on a fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Kaepernick was then intercepted by Kam Chancellor at the 40. But Seattle was held to a 47-yard Hauschka field goal that made it 23-17 with 3:37 remaining.
"When we had a chance to go ahead and end it, we didn't do a very good job of that," Carroll said.
Seattle's defense had another opportunity to end it with 2:01 left when San Francisco had a fourth-and-two at its own 30. But Kaepernick hit Frank Gore for 17 yards, and then the 49ers began to move, eventually moving to the 18 with 30 seconds remaining.
Crabtree ended up matched up on Sherman, who said he'd had only one other pass thrown his way all day (a play on which he was called for holding).
"As soon as the ball went up in the air I knew we had a chance to make that play," Sherman said. "We stood up when it counted. None of us wanted to feel what we felt in Atlanta (when the Seahawks allowed a winning field goal in the final seconds of the divisional playoffs last year) ever again."
Sherman said he intentionally tried to tip the ball high. "I knew one of our guys would have a chance at it," he said.
That turned out to be Smith, who got what was Seattle's third forced turnover of a raucous fourth quarter, and said, "I was just happy to be the guy to catch it. That's just the way our defense works."
Then the realization hit one and all that they were off to play Denver on Feb. 2 in Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey.
"It's a dream come true," said safety Earl Thomas. "I always dreamed about this since I was a little boy. I'm just happy, man. It's a great feeling."
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