SEATTLE — Rivalries become canon when the stakes are at their highest.
Even without a lot of thought or analysis, consider the Seattle Seahawks-San Francisco 49ers rivalry molded, established and cemented.
Sunday night’s NFC Championship Game was the stage this rivalry needed to turn an inter-division tiff into a blood feud that separates families, friends and Facebook followers.
And, you didn’t need regional sports radio or media to add to the hype or expectation.
Richard Sherman made a perfect play on a near-perfect Colin Kaepernick pass with 30 seconds left to secure a 23-17 victory at CenturyLink Field in Seattle — a play that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos on Feb. 2.
Before Sherman executed a tip drill to teammate Malcolm Smith to end the game, Sunday’s outcome was greatly in doubt.
“First off, it’s an incredible night of football here against a terrific football team,” Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said. “The 49ers are an amazing team, and they’ve proven that for years. Jim (Harbaugh) does a great job with the club. We totally respect what they bring and the challenge that they made for us today.”
San Francisco led 10-3 at halftime in a first half that was highlighted by Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson fumbling on the first play from scrimmage, Kaepernick’s rushing ability and defense, defense, defense.
Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, whose 40-yard touchdown run in the third quarter tied the game at 10-10, was the arbiter of offensive balance. Lynch’s third quarter — seven carries, 70 yards, one TD — allowed the Seahawks to implement a balanced offensive attack throughout the game. Lynch finished with 109 yards on 22 carries and one score.
Wilson appreciated it, throwing for 215 yards on 16-of-25 attempts and one touchdown in rhythm, and he found wide receiver Doug Baldwin six times for 106 yards. Wilson used his legs to clear space away from the Niners’ pass rush for completions, like the 51-yard bomb he delivered to Baldwin to set up the first of three Steven Hauschka field goals. Also, San Francisco finished with four sacks — two by linebacker Aldon Smith — when Wilson tried to scramble away with no one to throw to.
“We knew this game was going to be a battle to the end,” Wilson said. “Our biggest thing was just staying in the moment. You have to believe in yourself and believe in the moment. You know there is plenty of time left to make something happen and our defense did a great job.”
San Francisco running back Frank Gore was swallowed up by Seattle’s top-ranked defense for 14 yards on 11 carries. Kaepernick, who led all rushers with 130 yards on 11 carries, literally had to drive the 49ers offense by himself. The second-year signal caller was 14-for-24, 153 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
The loss of offensive guard Mike Iupati to a broken ankle in the second quarter didn’t help Gore or the running game. San Francisco also lost linebacker NaVarro Bowman to a knee injury that was replayed several times on FOX TV, just in case anyone missed it, in the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, the lack of running game forced the 49ers to rely upon Kaepernick too much. The Seahawks took advantage — three fourth-quarter turnovers — to seal the game.
“I didn’t play well enough to win,” Kaepernick said. “I turned the ball over three times. I cost us the game. The turnovers are the biggest thing. You turn the ball over, you don’t give your team the opportunity to score.”
Even with the defense turning the 49ers one dimensional and the offense finding balance in a game that was anything but, the Seahawks still had to stop a last-minute drive to seal the game.
That’s what a rivalry does to teams. Rivalry games are never easy to finish and the fight continues until the last tick of the clock.
Kaepernick drove the 49ers to the Seahawk 18-yard line on the final drive. With 30 seconds left and two timeouts, he delivered a near-perfect pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Sherman needed a perfect play — not an interception, but a play on the ball — to stop it.
Sherman delivered with a leaping swat of the ball away from Crabtree. Smith caught it in the end zone and sealed the win.
And, Sherman delivered his message on FOX TV after the game, too. He doubled down in front of the print/radio media later.
“I was making sure everyone knew that Crabtree is a mediocre receiver,” Sherman said with a smile on his face. “When you have a mediocre receiver, (a game-ending interception) is what happens.”
On Feb. 2, Seattle will be at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey for Super Bowl XLVIII. Across from the Seahawks on that day will be a historical rival, former AFC West foe Denver Broncos, and old-time fans will remember those battles.
That’s the thing with rivals. Once they are established, they never go away.
Rob Burns: (360) 537-3926, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @RobRVR