By Tom Rock
SEATTLE – Steven Hauschka stood staring at a 53-yard field-goal attempt he would never get to kick. Rather than try for the long field goal early in the fourth quarter that would have brought the Seahawks within a point, Pete Carroll called timeout just before the play clock expired. Then he changed his mind and sent the offense onto the field to try to convert a fourth-and-7.
The gamble paid off. Russell Wilson lofted a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse that gave the Seahawks their first lead and sent them to Super Bowl XLVIII with a 23-17 win over the 49ers in Sunday night’s NFC title game.
“They made a great decision,” Wilson said.
It will be the second Super Bowl appearance for the Seahawks, who lost to the Steelers at the end of the 2005 season. Seattle will play the Broncos at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.
Colin Kaepernick, whose running and passing dominated the Seahawks for most of the game, turned the ball over twice in the span of three minutes after Wilson’s touchdown pass produced a 20-17 lead. Cliff Avril sacked Kaepernick from behind – the first time Seattle sacked him – to force a fumble recovered by defensive end Michael Bennett and returned to the 49ers’ 6.
Seattle got to the 1 after a completion to Kearse that he appeared to fumble into the hands of the 49ers’ NaVorro Bowman. The non-reviewed fumble was ruled Seattle ball, though, and Bowman mangled his left knee while making the play.
On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Marshawn Lynch bobbled the exchange on a handoff and the 49ers took over on downs at their 15 with 8:18 remaining – still with a chance to return to the Super Bowl after losing last year’s. But Kaepernick’s pass was picked off by Kam Chancellor with 7:37 remaining. Hauschka converted a 47-yarder, his third field goal, for a 23-17 lead with 3:37 left.
One last stop
The 49ers nearly won it in the final minute, driving to the Seattle 18, but Richard Sherman tipped a pass intended for Michael Crabtree and Malcolm Smith intercepted it in the end zone with 22 seconds left. It marked the second straight year that the 49ers’ season ended with a pass thrown by Kaepernick toward Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone.
“That’s as sweet as it gets,” said Sherman, who played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. “We knew it would come down to us on the back end to win this thing.”
Said Carroll: “This team was ready to finish. We knew we weren’t in the lead (at halftime), but that didn’t matter. They were going to go out and get it done no matter what it took.”
The game started awfully for the top-seeded Seahawks. On the first play, Wilson rolled to his left and was sacked by Aldon Smith, who also forced a fumble and recovered it at the Seattle 15. The Seahawks held the 49ers to a field goal, and the bruising teams traded punches and forced punts on the next three possessions.
It nearly became four in a row when Kaepernick’s pass for Crabtree on third-and-9 fell incomplete, but a holding penalty against Sherman extended the drive. Kaepernick scrambled for 12 yards two plays later, then ran 58 yards to the 10. On the second run, the longest of his career, Kaepernick eluded the tackle attempts of four Seahawks before Chancellor finally brought him down.
With each stride toward the end zone, Kaepernick brought the volume at CenturyLink Field down like a DJ sliding a slow fade. By the time he was tackled, it was somberly silent.
The 49ers still hadn’t scored, though. That would come on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1 when Anthony Dixon leaped into the end zone. He did the same a play earlier and it was ruled a touchdown, but after review, the ball was spotted a half-yard short. The actual TD gave the 49ers a 10-0 lead.
But Kaepernick wasn’t the only mobile quarterback on the field, and Wilson was about to prove it. Rather than run with the ball, though, he bought time behind the line of scrimmage, ducking pressure after rolling right and looking to throw back to his left before unloading a 51-yarder down the middle of the field to Doug Baldwin. Wilson was sacked on the next play, though, and the Seahawks could only close to 10-3 on a 32-yard field goal.