Note: I haven’t been commenting much on the Seattle Seahawks so far this season. With the year ending injuries to key defensive stars Cliff Avril, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, plus the problems with the offensive line and the running game, I have been, more or less, in “wait and see” mode as regards this […]Read the Rest →
Note: As I sit here at my keyboard, 72 hours have passed since the Seattle Seahawks-San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship game came to its dramatic conclusion. I was so impacted by what I had seen in this game, won by Seattle 23-17, that I could not immediately write about it. The graphic images of the amazing plays and hard hits were so etched in my mind and I was so emotionally involved that I needed the distance that only time provides to regain an objective view. After three days, however, my initial impression has not changed. I thought at the game’s conclusion, and I think now, that last Sunday we were privileged to witness one of the greatest NFL championship games in recent memory. I am not stating this lightly, for I have seen nearly every Super Bowl and most conference championship games in the NFL over the last 50 years. I saw the famous Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers Ice Bowl in 1967 and the Joe Namath led New York Jets upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. I saw Dwight Clark’s famous touchdown catch in the last minute of the 1982 NFC Championship game between the 49ers and Cowboy’s; and I have even seen the game many consider to be the greatest game in NFL history, the 1958 NFL title game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants; this last one multiple times (I have it on DVD). In my opinion, what we saw between the Seahawks and 49ers this Sunday past was as good as or better than any of these games. I have taken extra time, therefore, to write and publish a review fitting of what we witnessed at CenturyLink Field during this extraordinary game. Here it is…MA
When considering the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers there is an old philosophical principle that definitely applies—to properly evaluate something you must have something comparable to relate it to. Perhaps because they are in the same division and the same conference, or perhaps because of the shared history of their head coaches or their similar style of play, their great defenses or their dynamic young quarterbacks; perhaps because of all of these things these two teams seem destined to be defined, each in terms of the other, and each providing a standard for the other to aspire to or exceed. Pete Carroll has said that San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh brings the best out in him and his team; Harbaugh calls the Seahawks an outstanding and worthy opponent that inspires the 49ers to strive for greatness. If you saw the epic struggle between these two teams in the NFC Championship game this last Sunday at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, you know exactly what Carroll and Harbaugh mean.
Understanding this, you can see that the 49ers and Seahawks playing for the NFC Championship is something that just had to be. Coming into the game San Francisco was the hottest team in the NFL, having won eight straight games; a stretch which included a win over the Seahawks at Candlestick Park in week 14 and 2 consecutive road wins in the playoffs over the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers. As for the Seahawks, they led the NFC West Division from week 1 of this season and had built a 3 game lead over the 49ers by week 13. Inexplicably, they seemed to struggle down the season’s closing stretch, losing 2 of their last 4 games with their lead over San Francisco shrinking to one game, before finally clinching the division regular season title with a week 17 win over the St. Louis Rams.
As the playoffs got underway many of us “twelves” watched as the 49ers beat Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the frigid cold at Lambeau Field. With that win we all knew it would be San Francisco coming to “The Clink” for this NFC Championship game. Even though the 49ers had yet to play the Carolina Panthers in the playoff’s divisional round, and the Seahawks had yet to play the New Orleans Saints, we knew it would be so. For all of the professed dislike and animosity between them, some inexorable force was at work, it seemed, pulling these two teams together. We all could perceive it and, though much trepidation was occasioned by the idea of facing the 49ers for a third time this season, in our heart of collective hearts we all wanted this game to happen.
Finally, on Sunday, 19 January, 2014, the inevitable came to pass and, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers met for the NFC Championship game of the 2013/14 NFL season. But, for two teams who measure their greatness against the standard of the other, this game was about more than the Super Bowl. To be the best you must defeat the best, and both teams knew that day that they were facing the best. The game they played lived up to that promise in every way.
With the Hawks receiving the opening kickoff the drama commenced from the game’s very first play. Under center and with a first down at his own twenty yard line, Russell Wilson took the snap, faked a hand-off to Marshawn Lynch and then rolled to his left looking downfield for a receiver. San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith, initially covering Hawks tight end Zach Miller in the left flat, suddenly left Miller and using his incredible speed made a B-line for Wilson, arriving at the quarterback so quickly that Wilson could not escape. Smith spun Wilson around while knocking the ball from his grasp and, to add insult to injury, then fell on it at the Seattle 15 yard line. The game was 10 seconds old and San Francisco had already forced a Seattle turnover and now had a first and 10 deep in Seahawks territory. The Hawks defense kept the 49ers out of the end zone but did give up a field goal for a 3-0 San Francisco lead. Unbelievably, those 3 points were the first Seattle had allowed an opponent on a game opening possession the entire season.
Like two fighters searching for an opening, both teams spent the rest of the 1st quarter probing each other—a jab here—a hook there—but doing no damage. That changed in the first part of the 2nd quarter, which 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernik turned into his own personal show. In this age of genetic modification, after watching Kaepernik perform, one is left to wonder if his DNA has been somehow combined with that of a gazelle. With the Seahawks completely shutting down the 49ers great running back Frank Gore and blanketing their receivers, Kaepernik took matters into his own hands, or should I say his own feet.
With the score still 3-0 at the 13:15 mark of the 2nd quarter and having just forced a Seattle punt, the 49ers had the ball with a 2nd and 10 at their own 20. From the shotgun the San Francisco quarterback took the snap and, not able to find a receiver, scrambled 12 yards for a first down to the 49ers 32. On the next play Kaepernik took the snap from under center, retreated to pass and then once again took off, this time up the middle, racing at amazing speed downfield into Seahawks territory, past Seattle defenders and looking for the world like the aforementioned gazelle. He would get to the Seattle 10 yard line before Hawks safety Kam Chancellor finally caught up with him. The 58 yard run was the longest Seattle has given up all season and the longest of Kaepernik’s career. From there the 49ers moved the ball to the one yard line, finally scoring the game’s first touchdown when head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to go for it on 4th down and running back Anthony Dixon punched it in. With 10 minutes left in the 2nd quarter San Francisco had a 10-0 lead and “twelves” all over the Northwest were having panic attacks.
At this point in the game the Seattle offense was struggling. When he tried to pass Wilson was under heavy pressure and the 49ers defense was shutting down Marshawn Lynch. Somehow the Seahawks needed a play and on the series following the 49ers touchdown Wilson finally gave it to them. Starting from their own 24 yard line following the 49ers kickoff, Wilson moved the Hawks 14 yards to the 38 in 4 plays. From there, with a 2nd down and 7 and in the shotgun, Wilson took the snap and rolled to his right, scanning the field before him, once again not finding a receiver. With 49ers defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey bearing down on him from the left, Wilson pivoted away and then back to his left, leaving Dorsey grasping air. Having freed himself for a few more seconds, Wilson again looked down field and suddenly unleashed a long, perfect, spiraling throw, hitting wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who had gotten behind the 49ers defenders, for 51 yards to the San Francisco 11 yard line. Wilson had scrambled for an amazing 9 seconds on the play, buying time for Baldwin to get loose, before uncorking his throw.
After the big gain the 49ers defense stiffened, surrendering only a Steven Hauschka field goal to the Hawks, but Seattle had moved the ball and that fact alone restored hope to the “twelves” cheering wildly at “The Clink”. Neither team could sustain a drive for the rest of the 2nd quarter and the 49ers took the 10-3 lead into the locker room as the first half ended.
San Francisco received the kick off to open the 2nd half, but after gaining one first down had to punt. Following a Golden Tate 9 yard return Seattle had great field position on their own 40 yard line. I don’t know what kool-aid Pete Carroll had his team drinking at the half, but whatever it was started taking immediate effect when the Seahawks offense took the field after the punt. On the first play of the possession Wilson handed off to Marshawn Lynch who blasted up the middle for 11 yards and a first down. The next play was another Lynch run over the left side for 5 more yards. In the first half Seattle’s offensive line was having difficulty making much way for Lynch, but now, suddenly, they were firing off the ball and taking it to the 49ers. The next play was a short pass, again to Baldwin, for 4 yards, leaving Seattle with a 3rd and 1 at the San Francisco 40.
Then came the play that brought everyone at “The Clink” to full throat, beast mode, decibel volume. From under center Wilson took the snap and handed off to Lynch for a run designed to go over right tackle. Upon getting the handoff Lynch took one step forward and then saw a huge hole open up in the line to his left. He cut back to his left and through the hole, used a great block by Seahawks’ rookie offensive lineman Alvin Bailey in the 49ers secondary, then cut back to his right when safety Eric Reid overran the play, and out raced 4 San Francisco defenders to the end zone. As Lynch was running a deafening roar grew and grew in the stadium, peaking to seismic force as he crossed the goal line while his super food—“Skittles”—rained down from the stands. Lynch’s 40 yard touchdown run was the longest surrendered by the 49ers all season and, unbelievably, the longest given up during Harbaugh’s 3 years as head coach. More importantly for Seattle, the game was now tied at 10.
Following Seattle’s kickoff the 49ers took possession at their 17 yard line with 9 minutes and 46 seconds left in the 3rd quarter. With momentum clearly having swung to Seattle, their ensuing drive demonstrated the greatness of Colin Kaepernik and his team. Mixing a series of passes and runs, including another 22 yard dash of his own around his left end, the San Francisco quarterback moved his team smartly to a first down at the Seahawks 28 yard line. On the next play the 49ers narrowly averted disaster. Kaepernik took the snap from under center, retreated to pass and was almost immediately assaulted by Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett charging in from the quarterback’s right. Bennett stripped Kaepernik of the ball while sacking him. The ball hit the ground and rolled forward, right through the legs of two Seahawks defenders, only to be picked up by 49ers center Jonathon Goodwin who ran forward for a 2 yard gain.
The Seahawks lost turnover opportunity opened the door for another amazing Kaepernik play. From the Seattle 26 yard line he took the snap from the shotgun, took a few steps back looking for a receiver, and then took off to his right and slightly forward toward the line of scrimmage. While on the run he jumped into the air and whipped his right arm forward, unleashing a bullet pass toward the end zone and 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin, who was standing a few yards behind the goal line. With Boldin, in tight coverage, was Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. More like a laser beam than a pass, the ball crossed the goal line, just cleared the outstretched hand of Thomas, and was snagged by Boldin with his hands for a touchdown. How either Kaepernik or Boldin were able to make their ends of the play, I have no idea, but this throw by Kaepernik was extra special. Since he was jumping and his feet were not on the ground, he had no footwork on the throw, which means it was an “all arm” 30 yard bullet pass with accuracy. I have never seen a throw like it in my life. The extra point made the score 17-10 and just like that the 49ers had regained a 7 point lead.
Now there were just 6 minutes and 29 seconds left in the 3rd quarter. Much earlier in my life I had watched in awe as two great fighters, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier stood toe to toe, blasting each other with haymakers, fighting the best to see who was the best. After that 49ers touchdown that is how this game seemed to me. Whoever connects with the last haymaker, I thought, will win this game.
It didn’t take long for Seattle to land the next blow. As the two teams were preparing for the 49ers kickoff following Boldin’s TD catch, Seattle kick returner Doug Baldwin stood toward the rear of Seattle’s end zone, leaning against the goal post while waiting for the refs to signal the start of play. He seemed completely calm, like he was hangin’ on a street corner in the ‘hood. Baldwin’s cool demeanor belied the passion that has always boiled within him as a player. Signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent out of Stanford in 2011, his whole career he has had to fight the perception that he is too small and just not good enough to play the receiver position in the NFL. Pete Carroll and Hawks GM John Schneider specialize in finding such players. Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor were 5th round draft choices and Russell Wilson was too short to play quarterback. Like Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse was an undrafted free agent out of Washington, and cornerback Byron Maxwell is a 6th round pick. The Seahawks roster is loaded with such types. They are ultra competitors because they have had to fight for it their whole life.
And so the ultra-competitor Doug Baldwin stood in the Seattle end zone waiting as the 49ers kick off descended toward him. From about 4 yards behind the goal line, he started forward and, timing it perfectly, caught the ball on the run about 1 yard deep in the end zone. He took off running straight up the middle of the field, started angling to the right about the 15, picked up some blocks and ran virtually untouched all the way to the San Francisco 33 yard line. The undrafted and un-respected Doug Baldwin had put Seattle in scoring position with a 68 yard kick return—his second explosive play of the game!
In the series that followed the 49ers defense completely dominated Russell Wilson and the Hawks offense. The first play, a Wilson pass to Golden Tate for 13 yards and a first down, was followed by 2 Lynch runs, a false start penalty and 2 incomplete passes with Wilson under extremely heavy pressure. Hauschka came on and kicked another field goal making the score 17-13 49ers with 3:59 left in the 3rd quarter.
After the ensuing kickoff the Seattle defense held the 49ers for a 3 and out forcing a punt and when Seattle took possession again it was with a 1st down at their own 38 yard line. On the punt the 49ers kicker Andy Lee had his plant leg hit by Hawks special team player Chris Maragos as he dove in an effort to block the punt. Maragos was called for a 5 yard “roughing the kicker” penalty for hitting Lee, but according to the analyst on Fox TV, because he hit Lee’s plant leg, Maragos should have been charged with a 15 yard personal foul penalty which would have given the 49ers a first down and continued their possession. Because of what would occur on the subsequent Seahawks drive, the lack of that 15 yard penalty became a critically important decision by the officials.
Despite all this, the Seahawks had the ball at their own 38. Two Lynch runs gained 5 and 6 yards respectively and a long pass to Jermaine Kearse, slightly underthrown, was broken up by 49ers safety Donte Whitner. On the play, with his team expecting another dose of Marshawn Lynch, Whitner had lined up close to the line of scrimmage in run support. When he saw Wilson fake a “play action” hand off to Lynch he realized he’d been had and that the Seahawks were about to take a shot for a big play. Immediately he turned around and started sprinting down field in a desperate effort to catch up with Kearse, who was running a deep post pattern crossing from right to left into Whitner’s side of the field. Kearse had almost two steps on the defender covering him and had both hands on the ball, only to have Whitner arrive at the last second and break it up. The 49ers safety had run over 40 yards to make the play, illustrative of the incredible defense and effort on display in this game. Earlier, on Kaeperniks’s 58 yard run, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor had made a similar run to catch the fleet footed Kaepernik from behind, for the moment preventing a touchdown. Both teams on this day were leaving it all on the field.
Following the incompletion and with the 3rd quarter winding down, Wilson moved the Seahawks to the 49ers 38 yard line in 2 plays, the first of which was a 13 yard completion to the ubiquitous Baldwin on a 2nd and 10 play. The last play of the 3rd quarter undid most of the good work Wilson and co. had done in moving the ball well into San Francisco territory. On a 2nd down and 6 play from the 49ers 35, Wilson took the snap from under center and retreated to pass. He came under heavy 49ers pressure and scrambled backwards to the 50 before unloading a pass to no one in an effort to avoid being sacked. San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh was livid on the sidelines, jumping up and down and yelling at the officials claiming that Wilson was guilty of intentional grounding. It took a few seconds but eventually the officials agreed with him and threw the flag. It was a devastating penalty for Seattle. On intentional grounding the penalty is that the infracting team gets the ball at the spot where the quarterback threw it AND, unlike most penalties, loses the down. As a result, with the 3rd quarter ending and the 4th quarter getting under way, Seattle now had the ball at the 50 yard line with a 3rd down and forever (actually 22 yards) to go for a first down. It looked like this once promising Seahawks drive would come to nothing.
Instead Russell Wilson applied the mantra he has espoused all season—he stayed in the moment. Many a quarterback would have caved in this situation, and his team would have ended up punting. Not Wilson. On the first play of the 4th quarter he hit tight end Zach Miller in the left flat and Miller broke it up field for a 15 yard gain, making up the yards lost on the grounding call. It was now 4th down and 7 yards to go. The Hawks were out of downs and a 52 or 53 yard field goal attempt was on the outer limits of Steven Hauschka’s range. Regardless, a field goal is what Carroll initially called, but as the play clock was winding down he decided to re-think things. With Hauschka and the field goal unit on the field just standing there and everyone in the stadium wondering what was happening, Carroll let the time run down and at the last second called a time out. On the sidelines he met with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and Russell Wilson and discussed their options. With Wilson lobbying that they spurn the field goal and go for it, Carroll ultimately agreed. The field goal was too risky. With a first down Seattle could continue the drive, possibly get a TD and take control of the game. Too this Wilson would add a twist.
Hauschka and the field goal unit were called back to the sideline and Wilson and the offense returned to the field. When the Seattle quarterback got to the huddle he told the team that he would use a double count, in other words call the signals twice instead of once, with the center not snapping the ball until the second sequence. By emphasizing the first set of signals with his voice (known in the NFL as a “hard count”) Wilson hoped to cause the 49ers to jump off sides and incur a penalty. Should that occur the Hawks offense would then have a “free play”, meaning they could take a chance with a throw to the end zone. If the pass was intercepted or incomplete it wouldn’t matter because Seattle could always take the off sides penalty of 5 yards which would then nullify the play that just occurred and give them a 4th and 2 at the 30; a better situation than they had now. So in the huddle Wilson instructed his receivers, if the 49ers did jump off sides, to alter their called pass routes and instead run vertical routes to the end zone.
The Seahawks broke huddle and came to the line of scrimmage at the 35 yard line for the coming play. None of us “twelves” viewing on TV or from the stands could have known it, but the game was about to take a dramatic turn. Wilson took his position under center with 3 receivers, Baldwin, Kearse and Tate to his right in what is called a “trips” (short for triple) formation, and started barking the signals. Emphasizing hard the first count, exactly as Wilson had hoped, the 49ers Aldon Smith anticipated the snap and jumped into the neutral zone. With the ball being snapped on the second count, Smith was trapped off sides and the Seahawks had their penalty. Observing this, all 3 Hawks receivers raced up field towards the end zone while Wilson retreated to pass. With all 3 tightly covered Wilson took aim at the middle receiver, Jermaine Kearse, and lofted a beautiful pass toward the goal line. At his end Kearse had gotten the slightest of steps on his defender Carlos Rogers, but had the advantage of having Rogers at his back and screened from the ball. As Kearse crossed the goal line he jumped in the air and, with Wilson’s pass hitting him squarely in the chest, the Hawks receiver clutched it and landed in the end zone for a touchdown. Another seismic outburst erupted from “The Clink” and the Hawks took their first lead of the game; a lead they would never surrender.
You would have thought that maybe this huge play would have been the haymaker needed to break the 49ers; like Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s crashing hook that broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw in one of their fights all those years ago. In all my 50 plus years of watching football I have never seen anything like Wilson’s pass to Kearse. Oh, I suppose a “hail mary” pass here or there would qualify, but this play did not occur at the end of a game with no time left. A 35 yard touchdown pass with plenty of time left on a 4th down and 7 in a game this big? Unheard of! For sure this was a blow that staggered the 49ers, but they were far from out.
Following the kick off, as a result of a holding penalty on the return, San Francisco took possession deep in their own territory with a first and 10 at the 11 yard line. At this point there were 13 minutes and 37 seconds left in the game and Seahawks and 49ers fans, no matter their location, were delirious. Few of us had witnessed anything like what we were watching. Across the next 10 minutes the game became, if anything, even more intense as Seattle’s magnificent defense rose to the occasion again and again, causing turnovers on this possession and the 49ers possession to follow.
The first of these turnovers occurred on a 3rd and 6 play from the Seattle 29 yard line as a direct result of an adjustment Seattle had made to slow down the dynamic Kaepernik. Both of Seattle’s top pass rushers, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, were now stationed on the left side of Seattle’s line, which would be to Kaepernik’s right. Their heavy rush would have the effect of flushing Kaepernik to the left, the far weaker side for a right handed quarterback, as it often forces him to throw at unnatural angles. The strategy also took away the right side as a running option for the quarterback. On this play Kaepernik took the snap from the shotgun and, retreating to pass, immediately felt the pressure from his right, exactly as Seattle’s coaches had planned. The quarterback fled the pocket to the left and, as he cocked his arm to throw, Avril crashed into him, knocking the ball loose. Following Avril to the quarterback was Bennett. When the ball came free it went straight down to the turf and then bounced straight up, and right into Bennett’s arms, who knew what to do with it. Grasping the ball at the 22 he headed straight toward the end zone, eventually being stopped at the 49ers 6 yard line. Seahawks fans were coming unglued—a 7 pointer now and this game was ours.
Alas…it was not to be.
Even in a game characterized by great defense you would think that a team would be able to score when provided with a 1st down at their opponent’s 5 yard line. Now, however, it was the San Francisco defense’s turn to stand tall. A short Lynch run, a false start penalty and a Wilson incomplete pass left Seattle with a 3rd and goal from the 10 yard line. On the next play Wilson hit Kearse on a slant over the middle to the one yard line, but he was hit hard and on his way to the turf 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman ripped the ball from the receiver’s hands, taking it into his own. An instant later Bowman himself went down after another player rolled into his knee, hyper-extending it in a direction that knees are not supposed to go. Even so it could clearly be seen on TV replays that he had the ball while lying on the ground and only released it due to being in great pain. By rule Bowman was down with possession and it should have been 49ers ball at the 2 yard line. Unbelievably, none of the officials saw Bowman on the ground with the ball and considered that Kearse had fumbled it. When Bowman released the ball a bunch of players from both sides went after it and in the scrum that followed, once everyone un-piled, it was Marshawn Lynch at the bottom with the ball. The officials ruled that it was Seattle’s ball AND, since it was a called fumble and was not a scoring play, that it was not reviewable. None of us had any idea how those officials watching the play missed that Bowman had the ball, but they did; and now the 49ers not only lost a turnover that was rightly theirs, they had to watch sadly as their All Pro linebacker was carted off the field.
I watched sadly too. As a Seahawks fan, though I know it wasn’t intentional, I hated what happened to Bowman. Furthermore, it was unjust that the 49ers didn’t get their turnover after their linebacker’s great play. After the official time out to get Bowman from the field, with a 4th and goal from the 1 yard line the Hawks decided to try and punch it in for the championship clinching touchdown. I agreed with the decision but felt bad about it. This game was too good for this to happen this way.
Then, as Russell Wilson took the snap from under center and turned to hand the ball off to Lynch, karma rose up and took a hand in the proceedings—I can’t explain what happened any other way. Counting practice and games Wilson must have made this handoff to Lynch thousands of times and always before had put the ball in the running back’s stomach. Inexplicably this time he put the ball up in his chest where Lynch could not secure it; ultimately losing control of it completely. We fans watched in shock as the ball bounced around, finally being recovered by the Seahawks at the 15 yard line. It being a 4th down play, the 49ers took the ball over on downs and ended up getting slightly better field position than they would have with Bowman’s fumble recovery. For the moment balance had been restored to the universe. Now the Seahawks could play defense unimpaired from the injustice of the past.
Play defense is exactly what the Seahawks did. On the first play from scrimmage Kaepernik handed off to Kendall Hunter for an 11 yard gain to the 49ers 26 yard line. On the next play Kaepernik took the snap from under center and took a 7 step drop looking to throw. Posted wide on the left side, 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin ran a route that Hawks safety Kam Chancellor must have recognized from film study or reading Boldin’s mind, because he reacted immediately and knew right where to go. Boldin’s route was a medium deep, double move that went up, then out, then up again and then out again, winding up about 14 yards down field on the left sidelines at the 40. As the play developed Chancellor read it perfectly and slipped into the passing lane directly between Kapernik and Boldin. Apparently Kaepernik never saw Chancellor as he threw to Boldin as if no underneath defender were present. All Chancellor had to do was elevate slightly and make the pick, which he did, giving the ball back to Seattle at the 49ers 40 yard line with 7 minutes and 37 seconds left in the game. “The Clink”, again, went nuts!
The Seahawks offense came on the field after Chancellor’s interception looking to strike the 49ers with a mortal blow. If they could somehow get a touchdown from this possession while using up clock the game would effectively be over. When Wilson hit Golden Tate for 10 yards and a new set of downs on a 3rd and 8 play from the 38 it looked like just that might happen. Once again, however, the 49ers counterpunched and stopped Seattle cold. On the next 3 plays, partially due to an offensive pass interference call, the Hawks ended up losing 1 yard, again forcing a Hauschka field goal attempt. The kick was good from 47 yards out and with 3:43 left Seattle now led 23-17; still a one score game.
Following the kickoff the 49ers started their possession from their own 22 yard line. With the Hawks just over 3 minutes from a trip to the Super Bowl, the tension in the stadium and all over Seattle was palpable. In last year’s playoffs the Seahawks had been in a similar situation in the divisional round against Atlanta, protecting a 1 point lead in the closing moments of the game. In that game Seattle’s defense could not stop quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons as they moved into position to kick the winning field goal. The specter of that failure still haunted the players and fans. After the game Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman summed up the feeling of the defense as the 49ers started their drive:
“None of us wanted to feel what we felt in Atlanta ever again,” Sherman said. “We felt like we let the team down. We could’ve made plays…In this game we wanted to take the initiative. It was 17-20—at that point the game should be over. We should make the plays to keep the score 17-20 and win the ball game.”
Initially it looked like the Seattle defense would stop the 49ers on their first series of the possession. An incomplete pass to Michael Crabtree when he shied away from going for a catch because Kam Chancellor was bearing down on him, left San Francisco with a 4th down and 2 at their own 30. With 2:01 left in the game the 49ers had to go for it. If they punted they may never get the ball back. One more time Colin Kaepernik found the wherewithal to make a play. From the shotgun he took the snap and again under heavy pressure from his right he was forced to his left, scrambling for his life. At the last second he found Frank Gore with a short pass which Gore turned into a 17 yard gain. The 49ers still had life.
Suddenly Kaepernik got hot. He kept the ball for a short run up the middle of 4 yards and then hit Boldin for 4 more yards. On 3rd down he found Crabtree on the left sideline with a perfect throw dropped in to the receiver right over Seattle’s defender on the play, Walter Thurmond. The pass gained 16 yards to the Seattle 29 and the 49ers had another first down. A quick pass to tight end Vernon Davis for 11 yards gave San Francisco a 1st and 10 at Seattle’s 18 with 30 seconds left in the game. This couldn’t be happening could it? Could Atlanta happen all over again? This incredible game was going to come right down to the wire—Frazier and Ali—haymaker for haymaker. I couldn’t believe what I was watching!
And then it happened. Kaepernik had been avoiding throwing to Richard Sherman’s area all game, to that point targeting him only once. Now, the San Francisco quarterback decided, was the time to burn Sherman for the winning touchdown. As the 49ers came to the line of scrimmage 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree was split wide to Kaepernik’s right. Directly opposite him in press coverage position was Richard Sherman. With the snap of the ball Crabtree broke off the line of scrimmage and streaked down the right sideline towards the goal line. Sherman took inside position on Crabtree and matched the fleet 49ers receiver stride for stride into the end zone. Kaepernik never had any other thought than throwing to Crabtree for the score. He tried to loft a pass over Sherman to the right rear corner of the end zone, in an effort to give his man a play on the ball. Kaepernik never should have made that throw, and will be second guessed to kingdom come by 49ers fans for doing it. Sherman was in great position to make the play but at the last second was shoved in the back by Crabtree. His timing thrown off slightly by the push, the Hawks All Pro was still able to leap up and at the peak of his jump, tip the ball with his left hand back toward the field of play. Trailing the play all the way to the end zone was Hawks linebacker Malcom Smith, who plucked the ball from the air and fell to the turf with the interception.
Once again, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was a magical moment and the fans at “The Clink” and bars and watering holes all over Seattle went wild. Sherman had made an incredible play and there was Malcom Smith with the ball. Like Ali when Frazier destroyed his jaw in their first fight, or Frazier when Ali thrashed him in the “Thrilla in Manilla”, the 49ers were done. There were still a few seconds to run off the clock but everyone in the stadium and watching on TV knew the truth:
THE SEATTLE SEAHAWKS ARE THE CHAMPIONS OF THE NFC AND ARE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL!!!
What a game it was! I, everyone with me, and all of the fans at the stadium and surely those watching on TV were emotionally spent.
After Russell Wilson took the last knee the Seahawks players exploded in jubilant celebration, hugging each other, some crying, some laughing, but all loving the moment. The 49ers looked on, stunned. They had come so close, only to be turned away by what is now being called the “Immaculate Deflection”. As a play, Sherman’s tip to Smith may well go down in NFL lore as the equal to 49ers receiver Dwight Clark’s catch in that incredible 1982 NFC Championship game between the 49ers and Cowboys; the game that marked the end of the Dallas Cowboys reign and the emergence of the Joe Montana, 49ers dynasty of the 1980s.
We will see…but one thing is certain. The Seahawks and their fans deserve this. The team has played all season with élan, verve and a certain swagger, and in so doing have bestowed those qualities on us and our city. Richard Sherman, never at a loss for words, probably summed his Seahawks up best with these eloquent comments in his post game press conference:
“Enjoy the moment…” Sherman said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity—with this unbelievable team that we have; the kind of guys that fight, play in and play out. The team is filled with them, and I wouldn’t want to be on any other team.”
No one could have said it better.
Copyright © 2014
By Mark Arnold
All Rights Reserved
 In his press conference Sherman was referring to a point in the game slightly earlier than the point being described in the text, when the score was 20-17 Hawks