By Brent Stecker
Three quarters into Sunday's NFC title game, Colin Kaepernick appeared to have lifted off his shoulders the burden of his two poor performances in Seattle.
Unlike in his previous starts at CenturyLink Field, he had yet to turn the ball over, and his running ability was a big reason San Francisco held a 17-13 lead entering the final period.
The lack of turnovers didn't last, though. Neither did the lead. And the weight is still firmly planted on the third-year quarterback's shoulders.
Even with 130 yards rushing, 153 yards passing and a very strong first half, Kaepernick lost a fumble and was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter, allowing the Seahawks to storm back for a 23-17 victory in an absolute slugfest between the NFC West archrivals.
The final interception was the ultimate backbreaker in the 49ers' first-ever playoff meeting with Seattle. With the ball at Seattle's 18, trailing by six points with 30 seconds to go, Kaepernick threw to receiver Michael Crabtree in the corner of the end zone. The pass wasn't exactly where it needed to be, however, and Seattle's Richard Sherman was able to tip it, allowing Malcolm Smith to make the pick and punch the Seahawks' ticket to their second Super Bowl.
Kaepernick said he believes he made the right decision with the throw, but that his execution was poor.
"Had a one-on-one matchup with Crab. I will take that every time," he said. "When I saw the matchup, I thought we were gonna score on that play. ... [I] could have put it a little deeper in the corner and given Crab a chance."
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh gave credit to Sherman, whom he coached at Stanford.
|• Recap | Stats | Photos | Interviews | Pete Carroll Show||• O'Neil: What we learned from the Seahawks' win||• O'Neil: Seahawks' win validates Carroll's approach||• Henderson: Carroll revels in Super Bowl berth||• Henderson: Sherman pops off after game-saving play||• Henderson: Chancellor makes his presence felt||• Moore: Seahawks' maligned receivers come up big||• Stecker: 49ers' Bowman injured, Davis shut down|
"Ball thrown to Crabtree could have gone either way. If that goes by an inch or two, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown and we win," Harbaugh said. "But Richard Sherman made a terrific play, made a great play, athletic play batting the ball, getting a hand on it and deflecting the pass."
On the 49ers' previous possession, which lasted just two plays, Kaepernick tried to hit receiver Anquan Boldin to his left near the sideline despite Kam Chancellor lurking in between. Chancellor jumped and had no trouble making the interception at San Francisco's 40, leading to a Seahawks field goal that pushed their lead to 23-17.
"I saw him," Kaepernick said of Chancellor. "I thought I could put it over his head."
Kaepernick's first turnover also came on a pass attempt, though the outcome was different. After escaping the pocket, Kaepernick was victim of one of Cliff Avril's signature strip sacks. The fumbled ball was then picked up by Michael Bennett, who returned it 17 yards to San Francisco's 6.
The importance of the turnovers – each of which seemed to put the home crowd and momentum more behind the Seahawks than the last – was not lost on Kaepernick.
"I didn't play good enough to win. I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game," he said. "The turnovers are the biggest thing. You turn the ball over, you don't give your team the opportunity to score."
Despite Kaepernick's play in the final quarter, Boldin defended his quarterback.
"I thought he 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."