SEATTLE (AP) — Pete Carroll knows all about successfully chasing championships. Yet this pursuit is particularly sweet.
"It's quite a magical moment," Carroll said Sunday after his Seattle Seahawks won the NFC title. "You can't really grasp the moment. Did we really do this?"
Yep. The Seahawks and their 12th Man are headed for the Big Apple and the Super Bowl.
"Every ounce of your energy, every moment spent watching film has been worth it, because we made it," said All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. His game-saving deflection in the end zone with 22 seconds left was caught by teammate Malcolm Smith to clinch the 23-17 win over division rival San Francisco on Sunday night. "It's fantastic."
A fantastic matchup, too.
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.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," said Sherman, who went on a rant about how 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree is a 'sorry receiver.' "They're an unbelievable, record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That's as tough a game as you can get in the Super Bowl. The No. 1 defense against the No. 1 offense. It doesn't happen like this too often."
That top-ranked defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse on fourth down for the winning points.
Moments after Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick's pass to Smith for the interception, the NFL leader in picks did a CenturyLink Leap into the stands behind the end zone, saluting the Seahawks' raucous fans. With 12th Man flags waving everywhere — receiver Golden Tate paraded around the field with one — and "New York, New York" blaring over the loudspeakers, CenturyLink Field rocked like never before.
"This is really special," said Carroll, who won two national championships at Southern California and 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 Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.
"He's tremendous catching the football," Wilson said. "He's got great hands, and he's got that desire, you know? So that showed up tonight."
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," team owner Paul 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.
"I had a 1-on-1 matchup with Crab," Kaepernick said. "I'll take that every time, against anyone."
Kaepernick rushed for 98 yards in the first half and 130 overall. His 58-yard run set up Anthony Dixon's 1-yard leap for a TD.
San Francisco also got an early 25-yard field goal by Phil Dawson after Wilson fumbled on Seattle's first snap.
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.
It resulted in Hauschka's 32-yard field goal, making it 10-3. Baldwin finished with six receptions for 106 yards.
The fourth quarter was all Seattle against the more-experienced 49ers, who were in their third straight conference championship.
But Seattle heads to the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold weather city.
"We are ready," Bennett said. "Whatever happens, we just want to be there and we don't care about the weather. We just want to go out there and win."
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