AFTER THE PRAYER circle had broken up and the confetti cannons set off, a dazed-looking Russell Wilson was being shepherded toward a midfield holding area. Wilson was soon joined by an exuberant Pete Carroll, who asked, "Feels pretty unreal, doesn't it?"

"Pretty amazing," Wilson agreed. "We're going to the Super Bowl." At that, they looked at each other and cracked up. From loudspeakers, Sinatra blared, "It's up to you, New York...."

Come Feb. 2 in East Rutherford, N.J.—seven miles from Hoboken, where Ol' Blue Eyes was born—it'll be up to Wilson. Weighty though that burden may be, it's simply not reasonable to expect Seattle's defense to keep Denver's Peyton Manning--powered juggernaut under, say, 24 points—a total the Seahawks have exceeded just once since Dec. 2.

So Wilson will need to shake off the peaks-and-valleys play he displayed down the stretch this season—and again on Sunday. After carving up the Saints 34--7 in Week 13, the 25-year-old quarterback was throwing for 222.7 yards per game. He was completing 64.9% of his passes, with a 22-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 108.5 passer rating. While no one believed Wilson would beat Manning for this season's MVP award, he was on some short lists.

Since then, Wilson seems to have regressed—at least statistically. In the five games leading up to the NFC championship, Wilson's completion percentage dipped to 56.7, his TD-to-INT ratio was 4-to-3, and his passer rating was a mediocre 77.4. He had fallen off those short lists and was now more often described as the offense's "caretaker."

Carroll sprung to Wilson's defense last week, assuring reporters that his quarterback's play was not a problem. Wilson wasn't struggling to find a rhythm with his receivers so much as he was "leading us in a way that keeps our philosophy intact."

As long as the defense was dominant, in other words—and as long as running back Marshawn Lynch continued to pulverize and demoralize (demulverize?) opponents—the Seahawks didn't need Wilson to put up Peyton-esque numbers. They needed him to, as Carroll puts it, "play within the formula."

Nowhere in the formula is there anything about Wilson bootlegging left on the first snap of the NFC title game and allowing Aldon Smith to execute a strip-sack, after which the 49ers' marauding outside linebacker recovered the fumble. While that inauspicious beginning spotted the visitors a quick 3--0 lead and briefly afflicted the 12th Man with laryngitis, Wilson's miscue barely fazed the Seahawks.

After that giveaway, a Seattle coach in the press box asked, over the headset, "Is [Wilson] O.K.?"

"You know he's O.K.," came the reply from the sideline.

"Nobody said, 'What the hell's he doing?'" recalls offensive-line coach Pat Ruel. "What you heard was, 'He'll get it back.' We have supreme confidence in this guy."

Wilson would get it back, then give it back, a quarterback's version of rope-a-dope. A 22-yard completion to Doug Baldwin was followed by a drive-killing 11-yard sack. That blunder was soon redeemed by another 51-yard completion to Baldwin, who had sneaked behind the Niners' safeties during an outrageous second-quarter scramble by his quarterback.

That chunk play led to a field goal that whittled the 49ers' lead to 10--3, and served as a "momentum starter," Wilson would say later. What really swung the momentum for Seattle, of course, was the uncaging of the Beast. Lynch, who had 33 rushing yards at halftime, erupted for 56 on the Seahawks' opening possession of the second half, capped by a 40-yard scoring romp.

Cracks appeared in the foundation of the Niners' formidable D. The 12th Man was awakened with a vengeance ... until Bad Russell made an appearance. Wilson's feeble throwaway on the last play of the third quarter was flagged for intentional grounding. Two snaps later—after Carroll sent out the field goal unit, then changed his mind—Good Russell addressed his teammates in the huddle: "We're going to go double count here"—a hard count designed to draw defenders offside.

Smith obliged; center Max Unger alertly snapped the ball while the overeager 'backer was in the neutral zone. "When we know we got 'em offsides," said Seahawks wide out Jermaine Kearse, "Max is gonna hike the ball, and we got all verts." Three receivers lined up right, all three ran vertical routes to the end zone. Wilson's pass hit Kearse in stride; he made the catch despite being tightly covered by Carlos Rogers and crowded by Baldwin, who had strayed out of his area. "He'll get a minus for that tomorrow," joked Kearse.

It is now Wilson's fate to spend a fortnight being unfavorably compared with Manning (as would all but one or two quarterbacks on the planet). Yet one got the sense, as Wilson addressed reporters an hour after the game, that he wouldn't have it any other way. Slights and adversity—and the tendency for people to underestimate him—have fueled him all along his journey, from minor league second baseman to quarterback at N.C. State and Wisconsin to third-round pick in the 2012 draft.

Reminded of his game-opening fumble, Wilson emphasized the importance of "having amnesia" to play his position. In fact, he told a reporter, he'd forgotten about that miscue "until you asked me about it just now." Wilson's memory isn't short so much as it is selective. There's a difference.

At a players-only meeting last summer, Wilson shared a story about his father, Harry, who died of complications from diabetes four years ago. Harry would often ask, "Russ, why not you?" Addressing his teammates, Russell asked them, "Why not us?"

In a corridor after his press conference, Carroll wouldn't concede there had been any drop-off in Wilson's play. "And when we needed it most, he was there for us," the coach said.

Earlier, as coach and quarterback stood on the field and laughed at how surreal it felt to be going to the big game, Carroll leaned in and said, "Now let's go win it."

Why not them?

PHOTOROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDBIRD OF MANY FEATHERS Which Wilson will we see on Feb. 2: The one who threw a 35-yard TD on Sunday? Or his less effective twin? PHOTOPOUYA DIANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]