SEATTLE — In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s NFC championship game, the Seattle Seahawks’ defense showed why it is deserves to be called the National Football League’s best.
And in the late seconds, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman also showed why he is perhaps the league’s best.
With the San Francisco 49ers driving for a possible winning touchdown, Sherman came up with the game’s pivotal play, deflecting a pass in the end zone to teammate Malcolm Smith for an interception that clinched 23-17 Seattle’s victory and sends the Seahawks to the Feb. 2 Super Bowl in New York.
Afterward, the voluble Sherman — often playfully voluble, but in this instance he seemed completely serious — took a verbal shot at San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree, the intended receiver on the interception play.
Against the Seahawks, “Crabtree was mediocre,” Sherman said pointedly. “Mediocre. And when you try the best corner in the league with a mediocre receiver, that’s what happens.”
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who finished the game 14-for-24 for 153 yards and a touchdown, had used eight plays and nearly three minutes to guide the 49ers from their own 22-yard line to the Seattle 18. Thirty seconds remained in the game as Kaepernick dropped to pass and then lofted the ball to Crabtree streaking down the right sideline.
But Sherman was stride for stride with Crabtree, and had inside position. He went up for the ball and was able to tip it into the air, and Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith, who was trailing the play, made an easy interception before dropping to the ground for a touchback.
“What were they thinking?” asked Seattle fullback Michael Robinson with a grin, wondering aloud why the 49ers would test Sherman, an All Pro, with the game on the line.
“Big players always step up in big situations,” added Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. “That was just a great play by Sherm, and Malcolm just did a great job of buzzing underneath and catching the ball.”
Seattle’s offense won the game with 10 points in the fourth quarter, but it was the defense that provided the opportunities in the final period with a fumble recovery by defensive end Michael Bennett and interceptions by Sherman and safety Kam Chancellor.
Still, the 49ers put the outcome in doubt until the final few seconds. Trailing by six, San Francisco was in position to win with a touchdown and PAT.
It brought back unhappy memories from a year ago when Seattle went ahead of Atlanta in a second-round playoff game, 28-27, but then allowed the Falcons to move the ball into field goal range for a game-winning kick.
“None of us wanted to feel again like we felt in Atlanta,” Sherman said. “We felt like we let our team down.”
And on Sunday, Seattle’s defensive players were grateful for the chance to atone. Of course, this is also a defense that led the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, passing yards allowed and in total turnovers.
“Good defenses are always going to love those moments when you have to stop (the opposing offense) and get them off the field to win the game,” Thomas said. “We always talk about how good we want to be and how we want to separate (ourselves), and that’s how you separate.
“You dream about these moments,” he said, “and I’m just excited to be a part of it.”