Sports Out West

Richard Sherman, Seahawks defense yields Super Bowl berth

CORRECTS BYLINE TO PAUL KITAGAKI JR.-Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) hits the ball away from San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) and is intercepted by Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker Malcolm Smith (53) during the NFL football NFC Championship game, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 23-17 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Paul Kitagaki Jr.) MAGS OUT; TV OUT (KCRA3, KXTV10, KOVR13, KUVS19, KMAZ31, KTXL40) MANDATORY CREDIT

The Seattle Seahawks couldn’t have scripted the end of the NFC Championship much better. With less than four minutes remaining in a six point game, it was up to the Seahawks’ defense to win the most important game of the year.

It did exactly that. Colin Kaepernick drove the San Francisco 49ers to the Seattle 18-yard line before being intercepted in the end zone by Malcolm Smith to seal a 23-17 Seahawks’ victory and advance the team to its second Super Bowl in franchise history.

Smith gets the credit for the interception, but it was Richard Sherman who made the play. For a split second it looked like 49ers’ wide receiver Michael Crabtree had a shot at a touchdown, but Sherman leaped high in the air and stretched out his arm to tip the pass into the arms of Smith on a play that few – if any – other cornerbacks in the NFL could make.

If there was any doubt that Sherman was the best at his position in the NFL, this play and this game ended it. But Sherman was far from alone Sunday, as the Seahawks won the NFC Championship due to a total team effort from a unit that doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses at the moment.

The player who stood out perhaps the most was Bobby Wagner. The Seahawks defense was put in a major hole early as Russell Wilson fumbled on the first play of the game to set San Francisco up on the Seattle 18. Wagner was instrumental to holding the 49ers to a field goal on the ensuing drive, as he flew to the outside to hold Crabtree to a minimal gain on second down and stuffed Kaepernick on a third down run up the middle where it looked like the athletic quarterback had some room. Those were two of Wagner’s career-high 15 tackles.

Kam Chancellor also had an outstanding game. His most important play came on an interception midway through the fourth quarter, but Chancellor was all over the field all game long, finishing with 11 tackles. He also delivered yet another bone-crunching hit on Vernon Davis late in the third. The entire Seahawks’ defense continued to do an outstanding job on opposing tight ends, holding Davis to just two receptions.

The Seahawks’ edge rushers didn’t find much success for the majority of the game, but started to find success in the fourth quarter. Cliff Avril got to Kaepernick from the outside on the 49ers’ first drive of the fourth to force a fumble which was recovered and returned for 17 yards by Michael Bennett. That was the first of three consecutive Kaepernick turnovers to end the game.  

Frank Gore was reduced to a non-factor, finishing with 11 carries for 14 yards. The best thing the 49ers’ offense had going for it was Kaepernick running the ball. He ran almost at will in the first half, including a 58-yard scramble that was a particularly poor example of tackling from the Seahawks’’ linebackers and secondary. But the Seattle defense adjusted, limiting Kaepernick to 32 of his 130 rushing yards after halftime.

Seattle continued a trend of doing just enough offensively to escape with a victory. The sense before the game was that a point total in the low-20s would be enough to win the game, and the Seahawks got the job done with 23. They did it with three big offensive plays, plus one on special teams.

The first came in the second quarter with the Seahawks down 10. Russell Wilson made a trademark Russell Wilson play, scrambling around in the backfield for what felt like forever before launching a 51-yard completion to Doug Baldwin to set up a field goal. It had been a long time since Wilson had made a play like that, and it got the Seattle crowd into the game for the first time.

Baldwin was the offensive MVP for the Seahawks, later adding a 69-yard kickoff return to set up another field goal. He became the first player in NFL history to have 100 receiving yards and 100 return yards in a Conference Championship game.  

In the battle of the running backs, the advantage went to the Seahawks. Marshawn Lynch had little room in the first half, but broke out with a spectacular 40-yard touchdown run to tie things up in the third quarter. Lynch’s 109 yards made him the first opposing running back to go over 100 against the 49ers all year.

The most important offensive play of the game came from Pete Carroll’s decision to go for it on 4th and 7 from San Francisco’s 35-yard line. Jermaine Kearse got behind the defense for a touchdown that gave Seattle its first lead of the game. Kearse has been a forgotten deep threat in the Seahawks’ offense who has had a bit of a drop problem since his college days at Washington, but he burned Carlos Rogers and was sure-handed on this catch.

For at least the next two weeks, the win over the 49ers stands as the biggest in franchise history. The Seahawks have Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin and many others to thank.   

Photo Credit : Paul Kitagaki Jr / The Sacramento Bee

 

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Nathaniel Reeves

Nathaniel Reeves is a journalism student at the University of Washington, currently covering sports for The UW Daily in addition to Sports Out West. He has been closely following Seattle sports his entire life.