Big plays lead to Seahawks’ biggest win of the season

Posted Jan 19, 2014

The Seahawks fell behind early only to battle back and take a 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship game at CenturyLink Field and earn a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Owner Paul Allen congratulated the team on what he called “an amazing effort.” Coach Pete Carroll presented the game ball to John Schneider for “being with me every step of the way,” and the team’s general manager was in tears as he accepted it. Macklemore led the players in an impromptu dance to his song “Can’t Hold Us.” Players took turns by position groups poising with the Halas Trophy.

If you thought the on-field celebration was wild after the Seahawks’ 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship game, you should have been in the locker room at CenturyLink Field.

There was blood (on the knuckles of Pro Bowl center Max Unger’s right hand), sweat (all around) and tears (in the eyes of many players as they tried to put into words what was in their heads and hearts), but mostly cheers.

Because the little team that thought it could, did.

And because of their latest heart-pounding, stadium-shaking effort, the Seahawks now have their sights set on a matchup with Peyton Manning and the AFC Champion Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands.

“This is our team, man,” said linebacker Malcolm Smith, who intercepted a pass in the end zone that was tipped by All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman with 22 seconds left to ice the outcome against the defending NFC Champion 49ers. “We just work so well together. I’m just so happy to be a part of this. It couldn’t have worked out any better.”

Especially after the way this game started, with 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith forcing Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to fumble on the first play to set up a field goal and San Francisco taking a 10-3 lead at halftime. Only to have the Seahawks outscore them 20-7 in the second half, a point Carroll emphatically made to his players during his spirited postgame address.

And the plays that led to the Seahawks’ latest – and greatest – comeback in a season where they also overcame second-half deficits against the Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers came from so many players.

And Carroll ran through the list with his players gathered around him in the locker room:

Marshawn Lynch became the first back this season to rush for 100 yards against the 49ers, and the crème de la crème of his 109-day day was a 40-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to tie the score at 10.

“The timing of it,” Wilson said, breaking into a smile. “We knew that we’d have to run the football still and keep attacking. His patience, you know, is just unbelievable. He’s been doing it all year for us. He’s electrifying. It all starts with the offensive line and the tight ends and the receivers blocking down the field. But his ability to make people miss and accelerate to the end zone, I think people underestimate his speed. You noticed how fast he was down the sideline and getting into the end zone.”

Doug Baldwin was seemingly here, there and everywhere when the Seahawks most needed him. He caught six passes for 106 yards, including a 51-yarder on a play where he got behind the 49ers’ coverage to set up a 32-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka for the Seahawks’ first score. He also returned a kickoff 69 yards in the third quarter that led to a 40-yarder by Hauschka.

“I can’t even explain it in words,” Baldwin said when asked to summarize his emotions. “I might be able to register it and put it in words in a few days. But right now, I can’t even believe this right now. It’s unbelievable.

“But we’ve been doing this all season, so it’s no fluke.”

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Jermaine Kearse caught a 35-yard TD pass from Wilson in the fourth quarter to give the Seahawks their first lead, 20-17. And it came on a “free play” on fourth-and-7 after the 49ers had jumped offside.

“We had a play called, but they jumped offside,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell explained. “So it was a free play for us and we have it built in what we want to do and the guys executed it perfectly. Everybody basically went deep on it, everybody reacted right. It was beautiful.”

Added Kearse: “We’ve all got lane marks where we’re supposed to be. Russ gave me an opportunity and I just try to go make a play for me.”

It appeared 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers had good coverage on the play, but when asked about that Kearse said, “I didn’t feel like that.”

Hauschka kicked three field goals – three more field goals, for the second week in a row, to give him 39 in 41 attempts this season. Wilson was 16 of 25 for 215 yards, with the TD pass and no interceptions, for a 104.6 passer rating.

And then there was the defense, from start to finish. The concern all week had been how the Seahawks would score enough points to defeat a 49ers team that had averaged 26 points during the eight-game winning streak which had delivered them to a third consecutive NFC title game.

The defense supplied the answer: By not letting the 49ers score.

All-Pro strong safety Kam Chancellor intercepted a Colin Kaepernick pass that was intended for Anquan Boldin to set up Hauschka’s third field goal – a 47-yarder with 3½ minutes left to make it 23-17.

“Boldin wasn’t my guy, I was the underneath dropper,” Chancellor said. “I knew what route was coming, but I couldn’t see the quarterback and he couldn’t see me. So the last thing he thought was that I could get underneath that route. The last time we played them they ran that route, but I didn’t get under it. So this time, it happened, I saw the ball in the air and I made a play.”

Defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett continued their tag-team routine, as Avril slapped the ball from Kaepernick’s hand and Bennett recovered. They teamed up for a similar play in last week’s win over the New Orleans Saints in their divisional playoff game.

“This means everything to me, to come out here and win this game in front of my family and friends,” said Bennett, who like Avril signed with the Seahawks in free agency during the offseason with hopes of having a season just like this.

“We wanted to be this situation where the game was on our backs.”

A few lockers away, Avril added, “Michael was saying during the game, ‘Hey, we’re a tag-team. You get the fumble and I recover.’ It’s crazy. Mike B is a heckuva ball player. I’m honored to play next to him and we just feed off each other. We know how to play off each other real well. It’s great.”

And then, finally, there was Sherman’s tip of a pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the back corner of the end zone that Smith intercepted with 22 seconds to play. It was only the second time the entire game that Kaepernick tested Sherman.

“Our defense, we stood up when it counted,” Sherman said. “Our team, we’re a tight-knit family, especially in the back end. One of our goals coming into this season was to make it to this game; to make it is just unbelievable. I really can’t put it into words. Every ounce of your energy, every moment spent watching film has been worth it, because we made it. It’s fantastic.”

Put it all together and it made for a championship effort in what was one heckuva game to determine the NFC Championship.

How impressive was the Seahawks’ performance before a CenturyLink Field-record crowd of 68,454?

When asked if he thought his team had played better than the Seahawks for most of the game, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh offered, “No, I’m not saying that. Congratulations to Seattle. They played a winning game. They won the football game, and they made some very big plays. We made some very big plays. It was a 15-round fight right down to the last.”

And because the Seahawks got in the last few punches, they’re heading to the Super Bowl for the second time in their 38-year history.

Asked what was going through his mind as he took a knee to let the final seconds tick off after the Sherman-to-Smith interception, Wilson went back to something his late father once told him that he in turn told the team earlier this season.

“When I was younger,” Wilson said, “he used to always say, ‘Russ, why not you?’ So I kind of translated that to, ‘Why not us?’ ”

Why not, indeed.