SEATTLE — The Seattle Seahawks are heading to their second Super Bowl — and they have their smothering defense to thank.
All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman made a huge play Sunday evening to preserve a 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game, setting up a Super Bowl XLVIII showdown with the Denver Broncos on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
With 30 seconds to play and his team at the Seattle 18-yard line and trailing by six points, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick tried to hit Michael Crabtree in the end zone. But Sherman would have none of it, making an acrobatic leap and tipping the ball up. Linebacker Malcolm Smith reeled in the interception, and CenturyLink Field erupted.
In a postgame interview with Fox's Erin Andrews, Sherman lost his cool.
"I'm the best corner in the game!" he shouted into the microphone. "When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're going to get!"
The bad blood continued to percolate with Crabtree, too. Asked about his back-and-forth barking with Sherman after that play, the San Francisco receiver said: "I ain't getting into that. He knows what time it is. When we're on the field, he isn't doing nothing. That's one play. He knows."
It was one play that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
"That's as sweet as it gets, man," said Sherman, who led the NFL with eight interceptions this season. "We knew it would come down to us on the back end to win this thing. Our front seven played amazing, our linebackers played amazing, our offense did an amazing job. So we knew we had to finish this off."
The aptly-named Legion of Boom secondary slammed the door on the 49ers, who were aiming to get back to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive season.
As "New York, New York" blared on the stadium speakers, the giddy Seahawks celebrated and confetti cannons showered blue, green and silver glitter on them.
"Not until Sherm tipped that ball did it really hit me," Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said. "It's quite a magical moment. You can't quite grasp the reality of it. Is this really happening? Did we really do this? Very, very special."
Now, Seattle is headed to the league's biggest stage, looking to do what it failed to do in the 2005 season, when the Seahawks suffered a 21-10 loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.
The Seahawks will play the Broncos, who punched their Super Bowl ticket with a 26-16 victory over New England in the early game Sunday. The game will be a contrast in quarterback styles, with record-setting passer Peyton Manning squaring off against Seattle's ultra-mobile Russell Wilson, among the league's next-generation stars.
Oddsmakers have the Broncos as early two-point favorites, according to R.J. Bell of Pregame.com.
Wilson, young but mature in his second NFL season, is emblematic of the fresh-faced Seahawks.
"This team, as young as they are, they don't act it," Carroll said. "But they know we're not done."
The Seahawks beat the 49ers in Seattle for the third consecutive time, dating to last season, and did so by forcing three Kaepernick turnovers in the fourth quarter — a fumble and two interceptions. To that point, the third-year quarterback had been San Francisco's most effective offensive weapon, having run for a game-high 130 yards in 11 carries, and hitting Anquan Boldin with a laser-beam 26-yard touchdown pass.
In the end, though, it was Wilson who wound up lifting the conference championship trophy, surviving constant pressure from a potent San Francisco pass rush.
"We played so hard," Wilson said. "We talked at the beginning of the year, and we said, 'Why not us?'"
San Francisco had no answer for that.
Wilson gave the Seahawks their first lead of the game with 13 minutes 44 seconds remaining, when he connected with Jermaine Kearse on a 35-yard touchdown pass to put Seattle up, 20-17. It was a daring call on fourth and seven, although Wilson felt safe throwing a deep ball because the 49ers had been flagged for jumping offside on the play.
The Seahawks would add a Steven Hauschka field goal, his third of the day.
Marshawn Lynch led Seattle with 109 yards in 22 carries, including a 40-yard rumble in the third quarter for the Seahawks' first touchdown, which tied the score, 10-10.
"We played Seahawks football," said Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, who had six catches for 106 yards. "Marshawn had over 100 yards. The wide receivers, we made our plays when we had the opportunity to do so. And what we've been doing the entire year has been leaning on our defense. When we came to a crucial moment, a crucial situation, we needed our defense to make a play. Richard Sherman tipped the ball, and Malcolm made the interception."
Said safety Earl Thomas, a fixture on the NFL's stingiest defense, points-wise: "I think this was a game we all expected, two great defenses going against each other.
"We always talk about how good we want to be, how we want to separate. This is how you separate."
Wilson was sacked four times in the first half, including the first play of the game. On that, linebacker Aldon Smith broke free as Wilson rolled left. Smith grabbed him and punched the ball loose as Wilson tried to break free. They both fell to the turf, and Smith somehow was able to pop to his feet and pounce on the fumble at the Seattle 15.
San Francisco couldn't take full advantage of the prime field position, however, gaining just eight yards before kicking a 25-yard field goal.
That set the tone for a defensive slugfest of a first half in which the Seahawks failed to find their offensive rhythm. Their defense did a good job of containing San Francisco's passing game, but the Seahawks were frequently burned by the scrambling of Kaepernick.
But in the end, it was Seattle's defense that paved the path to the Super Bowl.
"Our defense, it stood up when it counted," said Sherman, whose team was eliminated by the Falcons in the divisional round last season. "None of us wanted to feel what we felt in Atlanta ever again. We felt like we let the team down. In this game, we wanted to take that initiative to make plays."