SEATTLE -- In the years to come, all that will linger in memory will be the dominance of the fourth quarter. When the Seattle Seahawks needed it most, their defense answered. Three critical drives by the San Francisco 49ers. Three takeaways by Seattle's proud and loud defense. With Sunday's NFC Championship Game on the line, the strength of Seattle's roster, the unit that has led the way all season long, stepped forth one more time and proved its worth.
Without that flair for the dramatic, and a sense of exquisite timing, the Seahawks would not be Super Bowl-bound for the first time in eight years. They'd be staying home, not heading to New York for a turn on the game's grandest stage and a date with the dangerous Denver Broncos.
"A good defense is always going to love those moments when you have to stop them, or you have to get them off the field to win the game," Seattle safety Earl Thomas said amid the celebration sparked by the Seahawks' 23-17 defeat of the 49ers at a raucous CenturyLink Field. "That's what we bank on. We always talk about how good we want to be, how we want to separate. That's how you separate."
The Seahawks have indeed separated themselves at last from the rest of the NFC, completing a quest that began with head coach Pete Carroll's arrival in 2010. And they did it with defense. Always defense. Seattle wouldn't have it any other way.
"That's the way we've played the whole season, man," said Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett, who recovered a Colin Kaepernick fumble with 10:07 left in the game, kicking off the Seahawks' decisive takeaway spree. "These guys are relentless. All we do is practice turnovers on defense, and we just wanted to be in that situation, where the game was on our back. Because we were like, 'Hey, if we're going to win this game, then it's time to win it.'"
The Seattle defense loves to talk almost as big as it plays, but don't get too caught up in or distracted by its brash and bold ways, and all the smack talk issued from the likes of shutdown cornerback Richard Sherman. What really matters is how he and his defensive mates produce when the game is in doubt, not the slightly outrageous dialogue or actions he has become known for.
When the situation called for a hero Sunday night in Seattle, Sherman was there, tipping away a Kaepernick pass that was intercepted in the end zone by trailing Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith with just 22 seconds remaining and Seattle leading by six points. San Francisco had marched to within 18 yards of another Super Bowl trip, but it would get no further.
"We're a battle-tested defense, just to get a win like this," Thomas said. "Sherm is a great player. Big players always step up in big situations.''
I could do without the choking gesture that Sherman later said was directed at Kaepernick after the interception, or how he felt the need to get in the face of San Francisco's Michael Crabtree and taunt the vanquished receiver immediately after making the play of the game. But it's tough to deny that he thrives in the game's biggest moments and relishes being relied upon to save the day. The play he made was the difference between Seattle moving on or not, and he didn't let the stage go to waste.
"I was making sure everybody knew that Crabtree was a mediocre receiver," Sherman said. "Mediocre. And when you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver, that's what happens.''
Sherman said he was surprised that Kaepernick tested him in that situation. Surprised, but thankful.
"I really appreciate that, Kaep," Sherman said. "You try me like that. I hadn't gotten many opportunities all game. I'm happy about that. If our team knew the game was going to come down to a play like that, they'd be pretty confident going into it. I think everybody in the stadium was surprised. You throw that, it's a mistake."
Sherman is as clutch as they come in Seattle, but he wasn't alone in his heroics. Safety Kam Chancellor intercepted Kaepernick with 7:37 left in the game and the Seahawks nursing a 20-17 lead. Bennett's fumble recovery earlier in the quarter came courtesy of defensive end Cliff Avril's strip sack. Those are the kind of plays that have rescued Seattle all season, and they helped turn the tide Sunday after San Francisco had raced to a 10-0 first-half lead, and eventually held a 17-13 advantage through three quarters.
"What did happen is we threw a tremendous night of defense out there,'' Carroll said of his team's uneven performance. "With one exception or a couple exceptions in there, we really played great D. Again, we needed it all the way down the stretch.
"In the second half, we outscored them 20-7. Regardless of how it came about and how it looked and all, that was a great finish for these guys. That was what we needed to do. We needed to take the next step, finish this football game playing better than they [the 49ers] did longer. And our guys got that done."
After being shredded in the first half by the running ability of Kaepernick, who motored for 98 yards rushing on just eight carries, including a league-playoff record 58-yard scamper, Seattle adjusted and started keeping the explosive 49ers' third-year quarterback fairly well contained. Kaepernick finished with 130 yards rushing on 11 carries, but threw for just 153 yards on 14-of-24 passing, with those three crushing fourth-quarter turnovers: one fumble and two interceptions.
"We were forced to keep our eyes on him," Carroll said of his team's second-half defensive approach. "We had to play more zone just to make sure we could see him and come out of coverage to tackle him. We thought that would be the best idea to try to keep him in check a little bit."
The Seahawks and their "Legion of Boom'' defense will have a different challenge in the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning of the Broncos won't be testing Seattle with his legs, but his right arm has carved up the rest of the NFL in the passing game this season. Denver boasts the top-ranked offense and rewrote the league record books this season on that side of the ball. But Seattle has supreme confidence in its No. 1-ranked defense, and it stood the test against San Francisco.
"We wouldn't have it any other way,'' Sherman said of the Super Bowl matchup to come. "They're an unbelievable, record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That's as tough as it gets. That's as tough a game as you can get in the Super Bowl. The No. 1 defense against the No. 1 offense. It doesn't happen like this too often."
In Seattle, where the defense has distinguished itself all season long, there's only one more challenge left to meet.