In the end, when it mattered most, the Seahawks found an answer for San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
And it punched their ticket to the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks forced Kaepernick into three turnovers Sunday in the fourth quarter, including a decisive interception in the end zone with less than 30 seconds remaining.
Cornerback Richard Sherman tipped a pass intended for Michael Crabtree, and linebacker Malcolm Smith grabbed the deflection for an interception that preserved the 23-17 victory for Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
“I had a one-on-one match-up with Crab,” Kaepernick said. “I’ll take that every time, against anyone. … I didn’t play good enough to win. I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game.
“The turnovers are the biggest thing. You turn the ball over, you don’t give your team that opportunity to score.”
For three quarters, though, the 49ers’ offense consisted of little more than Kaepernick, who scrambled for 130 yards and delivered a 26-yard dart to Anquan Boldin for a tiebreaking touchdown in the third quarter.
This was the Kaepernick who torched Green Bay a year ago in the playoffs for an NFL-record 181 rushing yards by a quarterback in a 45-31 victory in the divisional round.
That’s an NFL record, period; not just an NFL postseason record. So, yes, he had the Seahawks’ attention.
“We were forced to keep our eyes on him,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We had to play more zone just to make sure we could see him and come out of coverage to tackle him.
“He still ran against us when we were playing zone in the first half, but we thought that would be the best idea to try to keep him in check a bit. That was hugely the factor in the first half.”
Finally, though, the Seahawks brought Kaepernick under control.
Defensive end Cliff Avril started the turnaround by sacking Kaepernick for a 6-yard loss at the 49ers’ 29 on the first drive of the fourth period. The ball came loose and caromed to Michael Bennett, the other defensive end.
Bennett advanced the ball to the 49ers 6-yard line, but the Seahawks failed to capitalize. A false-start penalty stalled the drive before a Marshawn Lynch fumble squandered the opportunity for points.
That fumble also gave the ball back to Kaepernick at the 15, but the Seahawks, leading 20-17, again responded when safety Kam Chancellor undercut a route by Boldin for an interception at the San Francisco 40-yard line.
That led to a Stephen Hauschka field goal that extended the Seahawks’ lead to 23-17 with 3 minutes, 43 seconds remaining.
But it was just three points, instead of a touchdown, and it provided Kaepernick with the chance to rally the 49ers to a winning score. He moved San Francisco to the Seattle 18 with 30 seconds remaining.
Here the game, and the season, was on the line as the record sellout crowd of 68,454 at CenturyLink Field came to full roar. Kaepernick tried to find Crabtree over Sherman in the corner of the end zone.
“It could have gone either way,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That goes (another) inch or two, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown, and we win. But Richard Sherman made a terrific play.
“It was a pretty darn well-thrown ball. From where I was looking, an inch the other way, it’s a touchdown pass.”
That inch instead went to the Seahawks as Sherman tipped the ball, and Smith came down with it. Three kneel downs later, the Seahawks had a Feb. 2 date against Denver in the Super Bowl.
The 49ers were left with what could have been.
“When I saw the match-up (in the end zone),” Kaepernick said, “I thought we were going to score on that play.”