SEATTLE - Pete Carroll's halftime speech began Friday.
That's when the Seahawks' coach first told his players what he would be telling them at the midpoint of the NFC Championship Game, regardless of the situation. He wanted them to finish, to play the final 30 minutes with abandon and to believe they would win and advance to Super Bowl XLVIII.
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The Seahawks wound up with a 23-17 victory over the 49ers, outscoring them 20-7 in the second half and forcing three turnovers in the fourth quarter.
"This team was ready to finish,'' Carroll said Sunday night after advancing to his first Super Bowl, which happens to be in the city of his first head-coaching job, with the Jets. "We knew we weren't in the lead [at halftime], but that didn't matter. They were going to go out and get it done no matter what it took.''
What it took was one of the gutsiest calls of the season, with the help of the most honest kicker alive. With Seattle trailing 17-13 early in the fourth quarter, Carroll sent out Steven Hauschka to try a 53-yarder that would have cut the 49ers' lead to one point. But as he trotted onto the field, Hauschka told Carroll he didn't think it was the right call.
"I didn't want to kick it,'' Hauschka said, citing the winds that were blowing in his face.
So Carroll called timeout and sent the offense back on the field. On fourth-and-7, Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse to give the Seahawks a 20-17 lead, their first of the game.
"We had some options there,'' Carroll said. "We wanted to get points. We weren't going to punt.''
Wilson said he changed the snap count in the huddle, hoping to draw the 49ers offside. It worked. Aldon Smith came off the ball early and gave the Seahawks a free chance at the end zone.
"I saw the flags, so we took our shot,'' Kearse said. "My role when we draw them offsides is to take off.''
"They made a great decision,'' Wilson said.
It will be the second Super Bowl appearance for the Seahawks, who lost to the Steelers at the end of the 2005 season. Seattle will play the Broncos at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.
Even with that touchdown and a 47-yard field goal by Hauschka for a 23-17 lead, the game wasn't over until the top-ranked defense in the NFL sealed it. Colin Kaepernick drove the 49ers to the 18 and then tried to find Michael Crabtree on a fade in the far right corner of the end zone. Richard Sherman broke up the pass, tipping it to Malcolm Smith for an interception with 22 seconds remaining.
"I realized we won the game,'' Smith said, but it wasn't until he reached the sideline that he fully comprehended that the play had sent Seattle to the Super Bowl. "You kind of forget about how much the game is worth when you're in between the lines.''
Kaepernick, whose running (130 yards) and passing (a 26- yard TD to Anquan Boldin) dominated the Seahawks for most of the game, turned the ball over twice in three minutes after Wilson's pass produced a 20-17 lead.
Cliff Avril sacked Kaepernick from behind -- Seattle's first sack -- to force a fumble that defensive end Michael Bennett returned to the 49ers' 6. Seattle got to the 1 after a completion to Kearse that he appeared to fumble into the hands of the 49ers' NaVorro Bowman. The non-reviewed fumble was ruled Seattle ball, though, and Bowman mangled his left knee while making the play.
On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Marshawn Lynch bobbled the exchange on a handoff and the 49ers took over on downs at their 15 with 8:18 left -- still with a chance to return to the Super Bowl after losing last year's. But Kam Chancellor picked off Kaepernick's pass with 7:37 left, setting up Hauschka's field goal.
"That's as sweet as it gets,'' said Sherman, who played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and repeatedly referenced a personal beef with Crabtree. "We knew it would come down to us on the back end to win this thing.''
Carroll said he didn't think about what was at stake during the week of preparation. It wasn't until the final interception that he allowed Super Bowl reality to wash over him. "It's quite a magical moment,'' he said. "Very, very special. This is exactly where we had hoped to be.''