The Philadelphia Eagles were an entertaining story during the regular season. So, too, were the upstart Carolina Panthers and the resilient Green Bay Packers and the reunited New Orleans Saints.
Deep down, though, just about everyone had a feeling that the Seahawks and 49ers were the NFC's best teams -- even more so given how hot San Francisco ran at the close of the regular season. The rivals proved their worth Sunday in a sensational, brutal NFC Championship Game that ended with Seattle advancing to Super Bowl XLVIII on a 23-17 win.
Was it always pretty? Far from it. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch botched a handoff for a goal-line fumble, while Colin Kaepernick threw a ridiculous interception. There were dropped passes and false starts and horrific injuries.
And it was mesmerizing.
In the end, the Seahawks won it as they had won most of their games this season: with Russell Wilson making something out of nothing and their defense standing tall. The latter made the decisive play, courtesy of a flying tip by Richard Sherman leading to a fortuitous interception from Malcolm Smith. It was never easy, nor did anyone expect it to be despite Seattle's two recent beatdowns of San Francisco at CenturyLink Field.
But after a rather disappointing AFC title game, this matchup provided everything NFL fans could have wanted ... and then some. The best and worst from a drama-filled NFC championship:
• First Down: Defense.
Sherman will be the hero for his last-minute play to prevent the 49ers from grabbing a remarkable road victory. There was far more going on in this game, however, from start to finish.
Aldon Smith set the tone for the evening on the very first snap, shoving off a block, reading Wilson's eyes and chasing down the Seattle QB for a strip sack. Aside from allowing a long TD run by Lynch, the San Francisco linebacking corps hardly let up, either.
Seattle, meanwhile, put the clamps on San Francisco's offense after falling behind 17-10. Kam Chancellor announced the shift in momentum with a rousing hit on Vernon Davis, which jarred he ball loose from the 250-pound tight end. Were it not for Colin Kaepernick's ability to escape the pocket and scramble, the Seahawks would have turned in a fully dominant performance.
• Fourth Down: An awful rule and NaVorro Bowman's leg.
There is nothing worse when it comes to the NFL than seeing a player suffer a gruesome injury -- an all-too-frequent occurrence, if we're being honest. Just such a thing happened to 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman, and because of an awful ruling on the field and worse explanation in the rule book, we had to sit through a slow-motion replay of the horror multiple times over.
On a 3rd-and-10 from the San Francisco 10, Wilson tried to squeeze a tight pass into Jermaine Kearse near the goal line. Kearse had possession for a brief instant before Bowman wrestled the ball away and maintained possession despite his left leg bending at a devastating angle. To nearly everyone viewing the play, it looked like an interception.
Emphasis on "nearly." The officials on the field ruled it a fumble, then gave Seattle possession after a Seahawk ripped the ball from Bowman as he lay on the ground in agony. Worse yet, because of that call, the play was not reviewable, which is absurd in its own right.
Lynch fumbled on the next snap, a 4th-and-goal from the 1 -- but the 49ers couldn't capitalize (more on that below).
• First Down: Those Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick TD passes.
The way this game was trending, it was hard to imagine anything short of a highlight-reel play turning the tide. Then, Wilson and Kaepernick delivered two.
It was Kaepernick first, somehow dropping an off-balance beauty of a throw over the Seattle defense to Anquan Boldin for a go-ahead touchdown. Wilson -- well, if we're being honest, Jermaine Kearse -- responded on a 4th-and-7 free play after San Francisco jumped offsides. The Seahawks' QB took a shot, slipping a lob pass through heavy traffic to Kearse for six.
• Fourth Down: That Colin Kaepernick interception.
No, not that last one -- just give credit to Sherman for an unreal play in the back of the end zone there. The one before that, right after Lynch's goal-line fumble gave San Francisco the ball back down by three. In trying to find Anquan Boldin, Kaepernick made an inexcusable read, somehow missing Kam Chancellor in coverage right in front of Boldin.
Chancellor made a leaping INT, which set up the Seahawks to kick a field goal for a six-point lead. That deficit forced the 49ers to look for the end zone late, rather than taking it a little more conservatively as they might have had they needed only three to force overtime.
• First Down: Beast Mode.
Marshawn Lynch is built for the playoffs. He treats every single run this time of year (and, really, throughout the entire season) like it is the most important of his career. That approach paid off yet again Sunday, when Lynch broke loose out of a pack near the line of scrimmage and scampered 40 yards for a crucial, game-tying touchdown in the third quarter.
Somehow, that run was only as impressive as several others throughout the day, including a rather inconsequential two-yard gainer late. Lynch was hit about six yards deep on a busted play there, then somehow shook off multiple tackles and plowed his way for a short gain.
Few running backs in the league are as consistently impressive as Lynch. He will get another crack on the game's biggest stage because of that quality.
• Fourth Down: Vernon Davis.
Seattle has done a number on opposing tight ends all season, so perhaps singling out Davis is unfair. But the 49ers needed more from their star tight end Sunday, especially as Anquan Boldin struggled early and Michael Crabtree was unable to find much room. Kaepernick looked Davis' way a mere three times, resulting in two receptions for 16 yards and that huge forced incompletion by Chancellor.
In each of the past two postseasons, Davis was close to unstoppable. He averaged 146 yards and two touchdowns in a pair of playoff games in 2011, then topped 100 yards receiving against Atlanta and Baltimore last year. He ended this run with a total of five catches in three games.