By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — The ball hung in the air, longer than a football ought to, a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII literally up for grabs.
But when the dust, and the football, had settled, Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith had an interception off a ball batted away by cornerback Richard Sherman, and the Seahawks had an NFC championship.
Three kneel-downs later, the Seahawks’ 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers was official, and in winning an instant classic, the Seahawks secured a trip to the second Super Bowl in franchise history.
“When he tipped it, I was like, ‘Oh God, the ball’s been in the air forever,’” Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett said. “Then Malcolm made a big play. … I was just like, ‘Oh God, thank you so much.’”
What a night. What a game. What drama.
“That was just a terrific game all the way around,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said. “If you’re a football fan, you’ve got to love that game.”
Yes, you’ve got to love that perhaps you’ve got to curse that game for giving you a heart attack or three. In a highly anticipated matchup between two NFC West heavyweights, the actual game somehow exceeded the hype. There were the hard hits everyone was expecting, big plays by both teams’ playmakers, lead changes, Marshawn Lynch-induced seismic activity, and more than enough tension to both scare and thrill a CenturyLink Field crowd of 68,454.
You saw Seattle’s often underrated receivers coming up with big plays, Sherman coming up huge the one time he was tested (then going on an all-time postgame rant — even by his standards — repeatedly calling Michael Crabtree, the intended target on that game-clinching interception, “a mediocre receiver”) and most importantly for Seahawks fans, you saw a team that came into the season with impossibly high expectations continue to live up to the hype.
“That’s as sweet as it gets, man,” Sherman said to fans in the postgame trophy ceremony, which saw original Seahawks owner John Nordstrom present the George Halas trophy to current owner Paul Allen.
Of course, before it could be sweet, this game had to turn into an all-timer. The Seahawks got off to about as bad a start as possible with Wilson fumbling on the game’s first play, then fell behind 10-0 when a usually stout defense couldn’t contain 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, who had 98 first-half rushing yards.
The Seahawks obviously weren’t expecting to get behind early, but they also weren’t overwhelmed. After all, they know all too well how good the 49ers are, and how tough this game was going to be.
“You knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “It’s the playoffs, the NFC championship. Those guys came out to play, but we made more plays.”
Besides, the Seahawks have had to come back before, both in last year’s playoffs, and on several occasions this season, so there was no panic. As fullback Michael Robinson told himself: “Thank God it’s the first half. Got another half to go.”
And what a second half it turned out to be. After a first half in which neither team could do much offensively, save for the big runs by Kaepernick, the second half briefly turned into a barn-burner.
Marshawn Lynch broke free on a 40-yard touchdown run — yet another memorable playoff moment for the running back — to tie the game at 10-10. That joy was short lived for Seattle, however, because Kaepernick hit Anquan Boldin for a 26-yard touchdown that somehow barely eluded a leaping Earl Thomas. Doug Baldwin, who finished with 106 receiving yards, answered with a 69-yard kickoff return to set up a field goal, then on Seattle’s next possession, the Seahawks converted on a gutsy fourth-and-7 call with Wilson hitting Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown that gave Seattle its first lead.
Another field goal off another 49ers turnover — San Francisco had three in the fourth quarter — made it a six-point game, then it was up to the league’s No. 1 defense to come up with one more stop. In last year’s playoffs, Seattle needed one more stop in Atlanta, but the Falcons got in position for the game-winning field goal. If anyone on Seattle’s sideline was thinking about that moment, they were expecting a different result.
“Something was just different on the sideline,” Robinson said. “You just kind of knew it was going to go our way at the end. You prayed, you hoped, but at the end of the day, you just felt a calm, a peace, because you just know that your defense is going to take care of business.”
It wasn’t easy. The 49ers got as far as Seattle’s 18, and had first down when Kaepernick decided to test Sherman. And as Seattle’s defensive backs have done so many times this season, Sherman made a big play.
“I knew it was going to come down to that,” Baldwin said. “I said to Jermaine Kearse right before Sherm tipped it, I said, ‘We’ve been leaning on our defense all season, we need them to make a stop right here.’ It was so prophetic. The next play, Sherm makes a hell of a play and we get an interception.”
The Seahawks got the interception, they got a victory, and now they get a trip to the Super Bowl they’ve believed was their destiny since last year’s loss in Atlanta.
“We believed,” Bennett said. “We never thought we weren’t going to win. That’s what made us a great team today.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.