Colin Kaepernick had the 49ers in position to win the game, overcome the demons of playing in Seattle, and get back to the Super Bowl for the second-straight season.
But when he looked for Michael Crabtree in the right side of the end zone with 30 seconds left down six points, All-Pro corner Richard Sherman tipped the ball in the air and it fell into the hands of Malcolm Smith, sealing the 23-17 victory for the Seahawks.
"I had a one-on-one matchup with Crab," Kaepernick said. "I'll take that every time, against anyone."
From coach Jim Harbaugh's perspective, it looked like his quarterback made the right play.
"About an inch or two, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown and we win," said Harbaugh. "Richard Sherman made a terrific play. He made a great play, athletic play to bat the ball, get a hand on it deflecting the pass. That's what I saw."
San Francisco's offense appeared to have conquered the raucous environment at CenturyLink Field, getting to the line of scrimmage early and avoiding pre-snap penalties, unlike the last two meetings when they were outscored 71-16.
But the game was decided by three fourth-quarter turnovers by Kaepernick that thwarted the comeback attempt after it appeared the 49ers had out-played the Seahawks for a majority of the game.
"I didn't play good enough to win. I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game," Kaepernick said.
Playing in their third-straight NFC Championship Game, the 49ers came up a score short again after being five yards away from winning last season's Super Bowl. In 2011, they lost the conference title at home to the Giants in overtime when two muffed punts led to a 20-17 overtime loss.
Jermaine Kearse's 35-yard touchdown on 4th-and-7 early in the fourth gave the Seahawks the 20-17 lead. Two plays after Russell Wilson incurred a 16-yard intentional grounding penalty, he drew Aldon Smith offsides allowing all three receivers on the right side to streak for the end zone with a free play. Kearse beat Carlos Rogers in the seam for the score.
Kaepernick fumbled and threw an interception to safety Cam Chancellor on consecutive drives, but it led to just three point as the 49ers' defense was able to hold Seattle in a key red-zone situation, but it might have cost them their best defensive player.
NaVorro Bowman suffered a serious injury to his left knee after causing a fumble from Kearse on a 3rd-and-goal. His left knee was rolled up on and bent the wrong way. Replays suggested Bowman recovered the fumble, but the officials ruled the play couldn't not be challenged by the 49ers.
A play later, on 4th-and-goal from the 1, Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch botched the handoff and the ball kicked back to the 15, giving the 49ers the ball. But Kaepernick threw the interception to Chancellor two plays later.
On the first play from scrimmage, Wilson rolled left off play action and was met by Smith, who forced a fumble and recovered it at the 15. But the 49ers could only muster a 25-yard field goal from Phil Dawson to take a 3-0 lead for the third time in as many playoff games.
Anthony Dixon scored the game's first touchdown from a yard out after Kaepernick's 58-yard run brought the ball to Seattle's 8. Sherman was called for a key holding penalty on a 3rd-down play deep in San Francisco's territory before San Francisco jumped out to the 10-0 lead.
The 49ers lost Pro-Bowl left guard Mike Iupati to an ankle injury on Dixon's score. Harbaugh said following the game he thinks Iupati fractured his ankle.
Seattle answered the touchdown with a 32-yard field goal from Steven Hauschka. It was set up by Wilson's long scramble before finding Doug Baldwin behind Donte Whitner for a 51-yard gain to San Francisco's 11-yard line. They got a sack from Dan Skuta on first down and Seattle stagnated. Baldwin finished with 106 yards on seven receptions.
And despite often being flustered by San Francisco's defense, Wilson finished with 104.6 passer rating completing 16 of 25 with for 215 yards. He was sack four times.
Kaepernick ran for 101 yards on his first six runs, but completed just two passes for 15 yards on San Francisco's first three drives. Kaepernick finished with 153 yards passing and 130 rushing, with 98 coming in the first half.
Harbaugh indicated the game plan coming in was to get Kaepernick going with his legs.
Lynch scored from 40 yards on the Seahawks' first possession of the second half tying the game at 10, giving him 89 yards on 15 carries to that point. He became the first player to rush for 100 yards against San Francisco this season, finishing with 109 on 22 carries.
The 49ers answered on their next possession when Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin in the back of the end zone over Earl Thomas. Kaepernick stepped up in the pocket and rolled to his right, threw off his left foot and found Boldin over the outstretched arm of Thomas.
"I thought (Kaepernick) played great all night," Boldin said. "Obviously, we had the turnovers, I wish we could take those back. But other than that, he played a great game. He made plays outside the pocket with his legs. He made some great throws. He played a heck of a game."
At the point San Francisco had a 17-10 lead, which appeared commanding given the way the defense was playing. But Seattle took the lead with Kearse's touchdown and later added a a 47-yard field goal.
Frank Gore could never get going, rushing 11 times for 14 yards. Kaepernick accounted for 130 of the team's 161 rushing yards. Both teams finished with 308 yards of offense.
"All our guys, they're great football players, they got great fight. What more could a coach ask for? They truly believed it," said Harbaugh.
"Just one drive, one touchdown drive and we move on. It's what our guys believed would happen. We came up short."
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