By Danny O’Neil
It wasn’t easy.
Not on the field, and certainly not on the nerves.
And the effort and anxiety only served to sweeten the satisfaction from Seattle’s 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
The Seahawks trailed by 10 points in the first half then came back behind the rushing of Marshawn Lynch and the patience of Russell Wilson, whose 40-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse a little more than a minute into the fourth quarter gave Seattle the lead.
They never gave that lead up, the defense forcing a turnover on each of San Francisco’s final three possessions, the last one in the end zone with just over 30 seconds remaining. The 49ers had the ball at the 19, a play away from winning when Colin Kaepernick threw the ball to Michael Crabtree, who was covered by Richard Sherman.
Sherman tipped the ball to linebacker Malcolm Smith, who intercepted it and took the lead. Cue the Sinatra. The Seahawks are headed to New York to face the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.
The significance: Are you kidding? The frickin’ Super Bowl. That’s the significance. Seattle is going there for the second time in the franchise’s history.
Play of the game: The 49ers had the ball at the Seattle 19 with 30 seconds left, and on first down Kaepernick threw into the end zone for Crabtree, who was defended by Sherman. Sherman tipped the ball, Smith picked it off and kneeled in the end zone.
Turning point: Facing fourth-and-6 in the second minute of the fourth quarter, kicker Steven Hauschka lined up for what would have been a 52-yard field-goal attempt. Instead, coach Pete Carroll called timeout, sent the offense back on the field and called a play with four vertical routes. When the 49ers jumped offsides, quarterback Russell Wilson knew he had a free play and threw it to Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown.
Player of the game: Marshawn Lynch rushed for 109 yards on 22 carries and scored on a 40-yard touchdown run.
The good: The 49ers passed for 17 yards in the first half, Kaepernick attempting just five passes. Doug Baldwin’s returned a third-quarter kickoff 69 yards, Seattle’s longest return this season. Baldwin’s 51-yard reception was the Seahawks’ longest gain of the first half. Lynch rushed for 70 yards in the third quarter, scoring on a 40-yard run. He surpassed 100 yards rushing against the 49ers for the fourth time in the past three seasons. The rest of the league has two 100-yard rushing performances against San Francisco in that time. Cliff Avril forced a fumble of Kaepernick in the fourth quarter, which Michael Bennett recovered and returned.
The bad: Kaepernick rushed for 98 yards in the first half. The rest of San Francisco’s offense combined to gain 28 yards. Kaepernick surpassed 100 yards rushing for the second time in the postseason. Wilson fumbled on the first play of the game, stripped of the ball as he tried to evade San Francisco’s Aldon Smith. It was the first time since Week 7 that Wilson had lost a fumble.
The ugly: 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered a knee injury gruesome enough to induce nausea as he stripped the ball from Kearse only to have safety Donte Whitner hit Kearse onto Bowman’s leg, contorting the knee. Not only that, but the 49ers were not allowed to challenge a play that was pretty clearly a forced fumble and recovery by Bowman.
San Francisco: RB LaMichael James left the game with a neck injury in the second quarter. G Mike Iupati suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter.
Seattle: WR Percy Harvin, RB Christine Michael, OL Michael Bowie, DE O’Brien Schofield, OL Caylinn Hauptmann, DE Benson Mayowa, DT Jordan Hill.
San Francisco: CB Eric Wright, TE Derek Carrier, LB Nick Moody, G Ryan Seymour, DT Quinton Dial, G Joe Looney, WR Jon Baldwin.