SEATTLE – The San Francisco 49ers were driving down the field, confident they were going to secure a place in Super Bowl XLVIII.
On a first-and-10 play, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped back to throw to receiver Michael Crabtree and the ball was caught in the end zone.
But it wasn’t Crabtree that came down with it. It was grabbed by Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith after a tip from cornerback Richard Sherman.
“I had a one-on-one matchup with Crab,” Kaepernick said. “I’ll take that every time, against anyone. … When I saw the matchup, I thought we were going to score on that play.”
Kaepernick said he could have put a little more on the ball to get it deeper in the end zone, but that he knew he “was going there” before the ball was snapped. The quarterback led the San Francisco offense with 98 rushing yards in the first half and 136 passing yards in the second half – and finished with 153 passing yards and 130 more yards on the ground.
But the third-year quarterback also had two fumbles – one recovered by the Seahawks – and two interceptions, including the game-clinching one by Smith.
“I didn’t play good enough to win. I turned the ball over three times,” Kaepernick said. “I cost us this game. … The turnovers are the biggest thing. You turn the ball over, you don’t give your team the opportunity to score.”
The 49ers tried to answer after a Steven Hauschka field goal extended the Seahawks’ lead to 23-17. After the kickoff, San Francisco started the drive on its own 22-yard line with 3:32 left in the game. With all three timeouts left, Kaepernick helped the 49ers get down to the Seattle 18-yard line.
Moving quickly, the quarterback got the players to the line, looked for Crabtree deep and looked on as Seattle ruined his comeback plans.
“Our whole mindset is go down and score,” said San Francisco wide receiver Anquan Boldin. “At no point did that ever waver. I’ve got confidence in all these guys: Kaep, offensive lineman, the receivers outside making plays. There was never a point where we doubted whether we could move the ball.”
No other 49er finished with more than 16 yards rushing. The Seahawks defense stopped both Frank Gore (14 yards on 11 carries) and Kendall Hunter (three carries for 16 yards).
“They played great defense,” Gore said. “We just couldn’t get it going.”
In his press conference, Kaepernick said the loss was his fault, while his teammates rallied around him.
“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” said linebacker Patrick Willis. “As a quarterback, I would imagine he feels like it’s all on his shoulders but we all had a hand in this game. The offense, defense and special teams.”
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh also defended Kaepernick, and the rest of his team.
“Colin and all our guys, they’re great football players,” Harbaugh said. “They have great fight. What more could a coach ask for? They truly believed it. Just one drive, one touchdown drive and we move on. That’s what our guys believed would happen and came up short.”
San Francisco had two key players go down in the game. Both left guard Mike Iupati (ankle) and all-pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman (knee) exited the game early and left the locker room on crutches. Bowman’s injury, which came in the fourth quarter and was replayed several times on the television broadcast, looked especially gruesome when a Seattle player fell on his leg as he made a tackle.
“I could hear him yelling,” said Willis, “and the only thing I could think of at that point and time – I didn’t even care where the ball was. I was just like, ‘Get out here and come help him. He’s hurt.’”
Harbaugh said the preliminary diagnosis was an injured anterior cruciate ligament for Bowman and a fractured ankle for Iupati.
Although their season is now over, the 49ers reached the NFC conference championship for the third-straight year. They’ve won once, getting to Super Bowl XLVII where San Francisco lost to Baltimore 34-31 last season.
San Francisco hopes to continue its recent success next season and hopes the fourth time is the charm.
“We just stay optimistic,” Willis said. “We fight and we stay together. Every year that’s the goal that every team has. That’s what all the training in the offseason is for, all the camaraderie each year. You put that work in and say, ‘this is your year.’ I have no reason not to think that next year will be our year.”
Said Kaepernick: “That’s always going to be our mindset. We play to try to get to the Super Bowl and win.”