SEATTLE — Richard Sherman did a CenturyLink Leap.
Golden Tate grabbed a 12th Man flag and circled the field with it.
Even team owner Paul Allen made an appearance and gave a victory speech.
The Seattle Seahawks are headed to the Big Apple for the Super Bowl.
“To see all our work that we put in — the mornings, the nights, the weights, all your life, as a young player and in the NFL,” Malcolm Smith said after his end zone interception with 22 seconds remaining clinched the 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. “It’s amazing.”
Seattle’s top-ranked defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass on fourth down for the winning points. Seattle will meet Denver (15-3) for the NFL title in two weeks in the New Jersey Meadowlands. It’s the first trip to the big game for the Seahawks (15-3) since they lost to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season.
The conference champs had the best records in the league this year, the second time the top seeds have gotten to the Super Bowl in 20 seasons. It also is a classic confrontation of Denver’s record-setting offense led by Peyton Manning against the NFL’s stingiest defense. Denver opened as a 1-point favorite over Seattle on the Glantz-Culver Line.
“It will be a great matchup,” coach Pete Carroll said. “I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity to go against a guy that set all the records in the history of the game.”
Moments after Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s pass to Smith for the interception, the All-Pro cornerback jumped into the stands behind the end zone, saluting the Seahawks’ raucous fans. With 12th Man flags waving everywhere, and “New York, New York” blaring over the loudspeakers, CenturyLink Field rocked like never before.
“That’s as sweet as it gets,” said Sherman, who also went into several rants about 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree, whom he called a “sorry receiver.”
“This is really special,” added Carroll, who has turned around the Seahawks in four seasons in charge. “It would really be a mistake to not remember the connection and the relationship between this football team and the 12th Man and these fans. It’s unbelievable.”
San Francisco (14-5) led 17-13 when Wilson, given a free play as Aldon Smith jumped offside, hurled the ball to Jermaine Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.
Steven Hauschka then kicked his third field goal following Kam Chancellor’s pick, and Smith intercepted in the end zone on the 49ers’ final possession.
“This feels even sweeter, with the amazing support we have had from the 12th Man,” Allen said, comparing this Super Bowl trip to the previous one.
Until Seattle’s top-ranked defense forced a fumble and had two interceptions in the final period, the game was marked by big offensive plays in the second half. That was somewhat shocking considering the strength of both teams’ defenses.
And those plays came rapidly.
Marshawn Lynch, in full “Beast Mode,” ran over a teammate and then outsped the 49ers to the corner of the end zone for a 40-yard TD, making it 10-10.
Kaepernick then was responsible for consecutive 22-yard gains, hitting Crabtree, then rushing to the Seattle 28. His fumble on the next play was recovered by center Jonathan Goodwin, who even lumbered for 2 yards.
Anquan Boldin outleapt All-Pro safety Earl Thomas on the next play for a 26-yard touchdown.
Then, Doug Baldwin, who played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, stepped up — and through San Francisco’s coverage — on a scintillating 69-yard kickoff return that made the stadium shake for the first time all day.
That set up Hauschka’s 40-yard field goal. And a frantic finish.
Seattle took its first lead on Wilson’s throw to Kearse with 13:44 left, and CenturyLink rocked again.
The place went silent soon after when Niners All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman sustained an ugly left knee injury midway and was carted off. Bowman, who was having a huge game, had forced a fumble at the San Francisco 1, but Lynch recovered.
“I never heard him yell like that, or even stay down for a moment,” teammate Patrick Willis said of Bowman.
The Seahawks had gotten their first turnover moments earlier when Cliff Avril stripped Kaepernick and Michael Bennett recovered. But Lynch and Wilson botched a handoff on fourth down on the play after Bowman’s injury.
It took only two plays for Chancellor to haul in Kaepernick’s underthrow to Boldin, and Hauschka’s 47-yarder ended the scoring.
But not the excitement.
Kaepernick, who rushed for 130 yards, got San Francisco to the Seattle 18 with his arm. But his pass for Crabtree was brilliantly tipped by Sherman to Smith.
“We knew it would come down to us in the back end to win this thing,” Sherman said.
The final play was similar to last year’s Super Bowl ending, when Kaepernick missed Crabtree in the end zone from the 5 and Baltimore survived.
“It’s tough. Any time you get this close to the Super Bowl and lose, it’s pretty upsetting,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “We just didn’t get it. We’ve been down this road before in the same kind of situation. It’s hard.”
Whether it was nerves or just a great play by Aldon Smith, Wilson fumbled on Seattle’s first snap. Smith got credit for a sack and a recovery, too — a defender’s dream — at the Seahawks 15.
More staunch defense followed, this time by Seattle, which held and only gave up Phil Dawson’s 25-yard field goal.
Seattle simply had no answers for Kaepernick’s runs, looking either flat-footed or plain-out lost when he took off. He gained 98 yards on the ground in the first half, including a 58-yard second-quarter run, the longest of his three-year career and the longest Seattle’s defense allowed all season.
But he was less effective in the second half and was plagued by turnovers.
Wilson came up with a huge improvisation of his own moments after Kaepernick’s long jaunt. Wilson avoided the rush with some nifty scrambling before spotting Baldwin behind the defense for a 51-yard pickup.
All it resulted in was Hauschka’s 32-yard field goal, making it 10-3.
Baldwin finished with six receptions for 106 yards.
And now it’s on to New Jersey, where Carroll once coached the Jets for a season. That didn’t end well — he was fired so the team could hire Rich Kotite. He heads back with a chance to add a Super Bowl crown to two national titles as coach at Southern California.
“It’s quite a magical moment,” Carroll said. “You can’t really grasp the moment. Did we really do this?”
Yep — the Seahawks and their 12th Man.
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