SEATTLE — It was frustrating. Then dizzying. Then nail-biting.
Ultimately, though, it ended in partying for the Seattle Seahawks, who rallied from an early 10-point deficit to beat their rival San Francisco 49ers 23-17 to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII, doing so to the delight of a CenturyLink Field record crowd of 68,454.
Seattle, which outscored the 49ers 20-7 in the second half, put the game away when Richard Sherman batted a pass in the San Francisco end zone into the hands of linebacker Malcolm Smith for an interception with 22 seconds left.
That came after the 49ers drove from their own 22 with 3:32 left to the Seattle 18, appearing ready to steal the game — and the NFC title — away from the Seahawks.
But it was fittingly that a Seattle defense that led the NFL this season made the game-winning — and season-making — play.
As the game ended, players, and some fans, gathered at midfield in celebration of what is the franchise’s second Super Bowl berth in 38 years, and the culmination of the rebuilding plan of coach Pete Carroll, who the franchise hired away from USC following a dismal 2009 campaign.
“This feels even sweeter,” owner Paul Allen said as he accepted the George S. Halas Trophy as the NFC champion for the second time, the other coming following the 2005 season.
Just three players remain from the roster Carroll and general manager John Schneider inherited for the 2010 season. Since then, they’ve crafted a team that went 13-3 in the regular season to earn the home-field advantage for the playoffs, and then rode that to the Super Bowl.
“This team was ready to finish,” Carroll said of Seattle’s second-half comeback. “They were going to go out there and get it done whatever it took, and they did it.”
Seattle had a chance to end it when the 49ers had a fourth-and-two at their own 30, with 2:01 left. But San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick rolled and hit Frank Gore for 17 yards as the game stopped for the two-minute warning.
Kaepernick, who finished hitting 14 of 24 passes for 153 yards and rushing for 130 more yards, then hit Michael Crabtree for 16 yards to the 29 with 55 seconds left.
But the Seahawks then made the kind of play that typified their season. Kaepernick tried to hit Michael Crabtree in the end zone, but Sherman tipped the ball to Smith who cradled it in the end zone as CenturyLink erupted.
And when he did, the realization hit that the Seahawks will play the Denver Broncos, who beat New England earlier in the day for the AFC title, on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
“That’s as sweet as it gets, man,” Sherman said.
After a staid first half that ended with the 49ers ahead 10-3, the game took head-spinning turns in the second half as each team finished with 308 yards total offense.
Seattle took the lead for the first time on a 35-yard pass from Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse with 13:44 to play on a fourth-and-seven that made it 20-17.
The Seahawks had initially lined up for a field goal, then called time and sent the offense back on the field. Aldon Smith jumped offsides at the snap, meaning Wilson knew he could throw with no risk.
Kearse had single coverage on Carlos Rogers and caught the ball as he fell into the end zone.
The Seahawks then had two chances to put the game away, getting 49er turnovers deep in their own territory, but couldn’t convert either time.
First, on a third-and-six play, after the 49ers had been called for a delay, Cliff Avril forced another fumble with a strip sack — just as he had done against San Francisco in September — with Michael Bennett recovering and returning it to the 49ers’ 6.
The game then took a haunting turn as San Francisco linebacker NoVarro Bowman suffered a knee injury on play that left Seattle with the ball at the 1-yard-line.
Bowman stripped the ball from Kearse on the play, but it was ruled that he lost it as his leg collapsed underneath Kearse, who was pushed into him by San Francisco’s Eric Reid.
Lynch, who finished with 109 yards on carries, recovered the ball at the 1 as players on both sides began calling for trainers to attend to Bowman, considered by many among the best defensive players in the NFL.
On the next play, Lynch had trouble controlling a high handoff and fumbled, with the ball bounding to the 15 before Seattle’s Michael Robinson jumped on it. The 49ers took over there with 8:18 remaining.
Two plays later, Seattle safety Kam Chancellor picked off an underthrown Kaepernick pass intended for Anquan Boldin at the 49ers 40 with 7:37 remaining.
That led to a 47-yard field goal by Steve Hauschka that made it 23-17 with 3:37 left.
And unlike two games in December, when the Seahawks took fourth-quarter leads only to then give them up, the defense held this time.
The 49ers led 10-3 at the end of a half in which it largely dominated the line of scrimmage.
Wilson, who went 16 for 25 for 216 yards and a passer rating of 104.6, used his scrambling to create a 51-yard pass to Doug Baldwin that set up a Seahawks field goal. Otherwise, the Seahawks were held to just 75 yards on their other 28 plays, including just 36 yards rushing on 13 attempts (Lynch getting 33 on 12 before breaking loose for 109 yards on 22).
The 49ers weren’t much better offensively, with 101 of their 128 first-half yards coming on Kaepernick runs.
But the 49ers were able to parlay a 58-yard run by Kaepernick into a 1-yard plunge by Anthony Dixon.
The game started in the worst possible fashion for Seattle as Wilson fumbled as he was hit by Aldon Smith as he rolled out on the first play of the game. Smith recovered at the 15.
However, the Seattle defense held from there as Kaepernick was stopped 2 yards shy of a first down on a third-and-six run, Bobby Wagner racing up to make the tackle.
Phil Dawson gave the 49ers a 3-0 lead on a 25-yard field goal.
The running of Kaepernick, and a holding penalty on third down on Sherman, set up San Francisco’s first touchdown.
The Sherman penalty moved the ball to the 49ers 20. Kaepernick then had runs on consecutive plays of 12 and then 58 yards to take it to the 10. Dixon was initially ruled to have scored on a 1-yard plunge on third down. It was reversed upon review. But Dixon then leapt over on fourth down to put the 49ers ahead 10-0.
It was only the second time all season Seattle trailed by 10 or more at home. The other time, Seattle rallied from a 21-0 deficit to beat Tampa Bay in overtime.
Needing to make something happen to get the Seahawks — and the crowd — back into it, Wilson did. On a second-down play from the 38, Wilson rolled back and forth in the pocket as Baldwin snuck behind the 49ers secondary. Baldwin then caught the pass for a 52-yard gain to the 11.
The drive stalled there, though, and the Seahawks had to settle for a 32-yard Hauschka field goal to make it 10-3.