By Danny O’Neil
The formula worked.
That plan coach Pete Carroll laid out four years ago when he was introduced as Seattle’s head coach, the blueprint he clung to after a pair of December losses, well, that approach has Seattle in the Super Bowl after a 23-17 victory over the 49ers.
And while Seattle’s talkative cornerback commanded the nation’s attention – as well as its ears – afterward, the interception Richard Sherman assisted on was just the final piece in what amounted to a four-quarter validation of Carroll’s insistence upon running the ball relentlessly and defending ruthlessly.
Why did Seattle win this game?
“Because we played Seahawks football,” receiver Doug Baldwin said. “We ran the ball. Marshawn went over 100 yards, right?”
Yes, Marshawn Lynch most certainly did. He gained 109 yards on 22 carries and scored on a 40-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The 49ers have given up 100 yards rushing to an opposing player six times in the past three seasons; Lynch is responsible for four of those games.
That ground game is like the Seahawks’ jab, thrown repetitively while also setting up opponents for bigger punches.
“Wide receivers, we made our plays when we had our opportunities to do so,” Baldwin said.
Sure enough. Baldwin caught six passes for 106 yards, including a 51-yard gain. Jermaine Kearse caught a 35-yard touchdown to give Seattle the lead. And while Russell Wilson threw for 215 yards, that passing game was more complement than cornerstone.
The defense is the bedrock of this team, and the reason Carroll has been so inclined to err on the side of caution when it comes to the offensive game plan.
Marshawn Lynch ran for 109 yards on 22 carries and scored Seattle’s first touchdown on a 40-yard run. (AP)
“What we’ve been doing the entire year has been leaning on our defense,” Baldwin said, “and when it came to a crucial moment, a crucial situation, we needed our defense to make a play.”
And Seattle’s defense did just that. Three different times, in fact, forcing turnovers on every one of the 49ers’ three possessions in the final period. First, Cliff Avril stripped Colin Kaepernick to force a fumble. Then, Kam Chancellor intercepted Kaepernick. And finally, Sherman tipped a pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the end zone, deflecting it to Malcolm Smith, who recorded the interception of, you guessed it, Kaepernick.
And when Sherman put both hands around his own neck, making the universally understood sign for choking, he was asked whether that was directed at Jim Harbaugh, his college coach.
“No,” Sherman said. “That was for Kaepernick.”
The quarterback wasn’t inclined to disagree.
“I didn’t play good enough to win,” Kaepernick said. “I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game.”
That was by design, though. All season the Seahawks have sought to let the pressure pile up on opposing quarterbacks. It was why Carroll didn’t use any timeouts as the Rams were driving toward what could have been a game-winning touchdown on Monday night.
More coverage of the Seahawks’ win over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
|• Recap | Stats | Photos | Interviews | Pete Carroll Show||• O’Neil: What we learned from the Seahawks’ win||• Henderson: Carroll revels in Super Bowl berth||• Henderson: Sherman pops off after game-saving play||• Henderson: Chancellor makes his presence felt||• Moore: Seahawks’ maligned receivers come up big||• Stecker: No redemption for Kaepernick | Notebook|
It’s also the reason the Seahawks were increasingly buttoned up on offense over the final month of the season, playing to the strength of its team, which is the defense.
“A good defense is always going to love those moments when you’ve got to stop ’em,” Sherman said.
And in the fourth quarter on Sunday, after the Seahawks took the lead a little more than a minute into the fourth quarter, the pressure was placed squarely on Kaepernick and the 49ers to make a play down the field.
Instead, it was the Seahawks’ defense that forced two turnovers in San Francisco’s half of the field and then held off one final drive in which the 49ers got to the 19-yard line before Kaepernick gave into the moment and threw a pass he never should have.
“I think everybody in the stadium was surprised,” Sherman said. “You throw that, it’s a mistake.”
A mistake that validated the way Carroll has coached this team, playing to its strength even as some howled that the coach’s approach was too conservative.