SEATTLE — Colin Kaepernick pulled on his headphones, finally able to shut out the roar. He picked up his plastic bag of food for the airplane and headed toward the bus.
And into another offseason of second-guessing and questions.
“I cost us this game,” Kaepernick said.
Kaepernick faced his moment. His chance to stand squarely with Joe Montana and Steve Young. Kaepernick was at the juncture where players become legends, where football games can become myth.
He had a trip to the Super Bowl in his hands. An opportunity to win the game and conquer his biggest foe, the Seattle Seahawks. And Kaepernick threw that beautiful chance toward Michael Crabtree, who was covered by Richard Sherman. Sherman batted it away and into the arms of linebacker Malcolm Smith.
Game over. Super Bowl dream squashed. Legend on hold.
As he dressed after the game, Kaepernick put the heavy burden of the loss on his shoulders. He seemed eager to wear it, a new chip to sharpen and carry. That load alternately will haunt and motivate him until September.
And much of that burden was deserved.
The game-ending interception was Kaepernick’s third turnover of the fourth quarter. After being almost the entirety of the 49ers’ offense for the first three quarters, he became almost the entirety of the loss. After calmly executing in his personal house of horrors — CenturyLink Field — Kaepernick imploded. One mistake became two. Two became three. The noise grew louder. The unraveling was unstoppable.
In a taut, physical game that was everything it was billed to be and more, Seattle took its first lead of the game on the second play of the fourth quarter. The 49ers got the ball back, but Kaepernick was flushed out of the pocket and stripped of the ball. The Seahawks recovered the fumble. Mistake No. 1.
The 49ers’ defense, despite a harrowing, gruesome injury to NaVorro Bowman and a bungled call by the officials, kept the Seahawks from scoring when Russell Wilson made a poor handoff attempt to Marshawn Lynch on a 4th-and-goal play at the San Francisco 1. The 49ers got the ball back at their 15 with 8:18 to play.
On the second play of the possession, however, Kaepernick threw a pass toward Anquan Boldin that was intercepted by Kam Chancellor.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said he didn’t think Kaepernick saw Chancellor. Kaepernick said he saw him and thought he could get the ball over him. Kaepernick was wrong. Mistake No. 2.
Again, the defense toughened and held the Seahawks to a field goal. A touchdown was going to win the game.
Kaepernick marched the team down the field to the Seattle 18-yard line. And for the first time all game, he targeted Sherman.
“He shouldn’t have done that,” said 49ers broadcaster Eric Davis, who considers Sherman — just as Sherman does — the best cornerback in the game.
It was oddly reminiscent of the Super Bowl. A throw to Kaepernick’s right, into the corner of the end zone, failed.
“I had a one-on-one matchup with Crab,” Kaepernick said. “I’ll take that every time.”
Even against Sherman?
“Against anyone,” he said.
Sherman became the national talking point of the game, stealing the spotlight by crowing that Crabtree was a mediocre “sorry” receiver. Crabtree fired back that “he’s a TV guy. I’m not a TV guy.”
No matter what fate befalls the Seahawks in New Jersey in two weeks, the intensity between these two teams will be ramped up even further next season.
And it still will be Kaepernick’s hurdle to overcome. Kaepernick insists the environment in Seattle doesn’t bother him, but his three turnovers Sunday bring his total to eight turnovers — six interceptions and two fumbles — in three games at CenturyLink.
Until the fourth quarter, it looked as though Kaepernick had changed his history. The Seahawks’ defense seemed to have no answer for him. He rushed for 130 yards, 98 in the first half. On a 58-yard run that set up the 49ers’ first touchdown, Kaepernick evaded four tacklers before being brought down by the fifth. Kaepernick has three of the top five — including the top two — postseason rushing performances by a quarterback.
And he was effective passing when it counted. He made a beautiful throw to Boldin for a touchdown in the third quarter. He didn’t seem troubled by Seattle’s “Legion of Boom.”
The running lanes weren’t open in the second half, or Kaepernick opted not to use them.
“We had to play more zone just to make sure we could see him and come out of coverage to tackle him,” Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said. “We thought that would be the best idea to try to keep him in check.”
The Seahawks kept him in check. And then they pushed Kaepernick to the unraveling point.
Kaepernick lost a Super Bowl in February looking for Crabtree three times in the end zone. A year later, and with a full season as a starter under his belt, he lost his chance at redemption looking for Crabtree in the end zone.
“I thought that we were going to go win it,” Kaepernick said.
If they had, he would have had a Montana moment. A chance to evolve into a legend.
But they didn’t win. Another team with a quarterback in his second year as a starter did.
Wearing his earphones and a new, bitter chip of motivation, Kaepernick walked into his offseason.
Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @annkillion
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