Standing in a dark tunnel at MetLife Stadium in mid-December, fullback Michael Robinson told his teammates to look around.
Robinson wanted them to understand the field, the slopes, what it feels like in the locker room. He wanted them to store that information for one reason.
“We’re coming back here,” Robinson said.
An end-zone tip from Richard Sherman turned Robinson into a soothsayer Sunday. Sherman’s coverage coupled with 10 unanswered fourth-quarter points produced a 23-17 Seattle win over the Seahawks’ mightiest rival, the San Francisco 49ers, in the NFC title game.
The Seahawks will play the Denver Broncos – who beat the New England Patriots, 26-16, to win the AFC championship – Sunday, Feb. 2, at 3:30 p.m. in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.
The organization’s second trip to the Super Bowl was more anticipated than the first in 2005. Since summer, the Seahawks were swarmed with expectations. As the NFC’s top seed, they had luxury of playing in the noisiest homestead in the NFL. There could be no better scenario for such an indomitable home team.
Sunday’s win washed away the bitterness. The memories of a last-minute defeat to Atlanta which ended last season were stuffed into a box and stored. Sherman’s tip in the end zone of a fade pass from San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was caught by linebacker Malcolm Smith with 22 seconds remaining. He went down in the end zone, the 49ers were out of leverage and, three plays later, forced to exit.
Sherman had been thrown at once prior in the game. He was tested with by Kaepernick, who was intercepted twice, in the most crucial time, allowing the in-your-face Sherman to be at his all-time brashest afterward.
“When you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver, that’s what happens,” Sherman said. “Game.”
Robinson left the field with tears coming down his face, saying afterward he thought his career was over in the preseason when he became sick and was cut.
“Today was just our day,” Robinson said. “Losing was not an option. It was not on the table. It was not a choice.”
Red Bryant, a native of Jasper, Texas, explained how he would watch the Dallas Cowboys dynasty when he was younger and dream of the Super Bowl. It was a repeated thought throughout one of the NFL’s youngest lockerrooms. Dreams of being a place most never go and many envision were coming true with each kneel-down Russell Wilson took to squeeze the last seconds off the clock.
“It hit me when 22 seconds to go,” left tackle Russell Okung said. “We’re here.”
The arrival was in doubt much of the day. The ferocious 49ers immediately reminded Wilson of their linebackers’ speed. Aldon Smith tracked down Wilson on the game’s first play, flushing Wilson from the pocket and leading to a fumble Smith recovered.
It was a stunning start. Off the first-snap play-action Wilson had tight end Zach Miller open downfield. Instead, the 49ers took over at the Seahawks’ 15-yard line 10 seconds into the game.
The Seahawks defense held San Francisco to a 25-yard field goal. Before those that filled stadium even wrapped their heads around the fact the game had started, the 49ers led.
That lead moved to 10-0 when backup running back Anthony Dixon sprung over the top of the Seahawks’ defensive line on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Kaepernick's running tortured the Seahawks at the start.
The Seahawks’ offense sputtered throughout the first half. Wilson was erratic. Marshawn Lynch was often stuffed. San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman patrolled the middle of the field like an unfed pitbull on watch at the junkyard.
Finally, a break. Doug Baldwin leaked behind the San Francisco defense and caught a 51-yard pass. It only ended in three points, but Steven Hauschka’s 32-yard field goal clicked the Seahawks’ scoreboard spot from zero to 3. San Francisco led 10-3 at the half.
Lynch broke through in the third quarter with a 40-yard touchdown run around the left side. After so many brutish collisions in the middle of the line with angry 49ers defenders, Lynch finally found outside space when he bounced off backup lineman Alvin Bailey. Bailey’s use as in the Seahawks’ jumbo package as the extra blocker changed the course of the running game.
The fourth quarter was a game unto itself. Flags plopped to the ground signalling to the Seahawks a free play was under way on 4th-and-7 from the 49ers’ 35-yard line after San Francisco jumped offside. Each receiver went deep, Wilson took his shot and Jermaine Kearse clamped the ball to his body for a diving and game-changing touchdown.
The catch vaulted the Seahawks into a 20-17 lead. Mania was to follow.
Kearse fumbled when hit over the middle at the goalline. The loose ball landed on Bowman, who mangled his left leg on the play, and fell to the ground with the ball. Once the pile was cleared, Lynch held the ball. By rule, the play could not be reviewed and became a gift for Seattle.
In a sweep of restitution, Wilson and Lynch fumbled the exchange on the next play. San Francisco recovered, but Kaepernick was about to crumble.
Kaepernick committed three turnovers in the fourth quarter. One when he was stripped from behind by Cliff Avril. Another when Kam Chancellor intercepted him on the sideline, which led to the final score of the day, a 47-yard field goal from Hauschka. Then, the final door slam from Sherman.
“We needed to take the next step,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “Finish this football game playing better than they did longer, and our guys got that done.”
Green and blue confetti sat on the field afterward. Hours after the screaming had ceased, and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” had been turned off, only television camera lights dotting the sideline remained. The home of the NFC champions was silent after its most extreme opponent had been vanquished in front of a record crowd.
Now, the Seahawks have two weeks to prepare for arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. They will be on the biggest sports stage in the country, amid the brightest lights in America’s most restless town.
“It doesn’t get any better,” Wilson said.