John McGrath: Seahawks' miracle run has no sign of stopping

January 19, 2014 

In the words of the beloved broadcaster who described another local team’s most glorious moment:

It … just … continues.

The Seattle season no Seahawks fan wanted to see end Sunday got a two-week extenuation for the last stretch: a trip to New York and another shot for the franchise to win its first Super Bowl.

“This one is sweeter,” owner Paul Allen said of his team’s second NFC championship, celebrated on the same field where he held the George Halas Trophy aloft eight years ago.

If the 23-17 victory over San Francisco on Sunday seemed sweeter than a more emphatic title-game effort against the 2005 Carolina Panthers, it was because the 49ers took command of the early momentum and kept the issue in suspense for 59 minutes and 42 seconds.

And though the Seahawks weren’t assured of winning until cornerback Richard Sherman tracked down Colin Kaepernick’s potential game-winning pass to Michael Crabtree and tipped the ball into the hands of teammate Malcolm Smith, the game pivoted on a hunch coach Pete Carroll made on the final play of the third quarter.

Trailing 17-13, the Hawks were facing a fourth down and 7 at the San Francisco 35-yard line. On the sideline, Steven Hauschka took his last practice kick into a net before jogging out for an apparent attempt at the 52-yard field goal that could draw his team within a single point.

The kick would’ve been slightly beyond Hauschka’s comfort zone, but better options weren’t obvious. A punt posed a high chance at a touchback and a net exchange gain of 15 yards, and going for it on fourth down had high-reward benefits but a low probability of success.

So it was “Hausch Money” for the three-point attempt. But as Hauschka ambled onto the field, he noticed none of his kicking unit colleagues were joining him.

“We sent the field goal unit out there to do it,” explained Carroll, “but as we talked it over, it was beyond what Hauschka had done pregame. And we said: OK, let’s not force that issue in hopes of him kicking a good ball right there. So we let it wind down to go ahead and take a shot.”

Said Wilson: “Coach Carroll, I was kind of begging him. I said ‘hey, let’s go for it if we’re not kicking the field goal. Just give us a chance … It’s one of those things that it’s potentially the last game of the year. Its one of those things that sometimes you’ve got to go for something. You’ve got to believe in your guys and believe that you can get it.”

Carroll didn’t have to wait long to realize his aggressive decision was the right one when linebacker Aldon Smith — committing what might’ve been his only mistake of a stellar afternoon — jumped offside and set the Hawks up with amounted to a free play.

Quarterback Russell Wilson knew what to do.

“I told the guys in the huddle, ‘if the defense jumps offside, we’re going deep,’” said Wilson, who saw wide receiver Jermaine Kearse break past cornerback Carlos Rodgers on a post route.

Kearse caught the pass in stride for the touchdown that gave the Seahawks both the lead for the first time and the idea that maybe, just maybe, they finally had seized control of the game. And when the Seahawks’ Cliff Avril forced a Kaepernick fumble that Michael Bennett recovered and returned to the San Francisco 6 on the 49ers’ next possession, the Hawks were primed for the knockout punch.

Or maybe not.

The drive turned into a mess that included a false start penalty and a goal-line fumble — clearly recovered by the 49ers — officials were not able to review. A fourth down at the 1-yard line presented the opportunity for a chip-shot field goal and a six-point lead with 8:18 remaining, but Carroll was thinking bigger than that.

Fourth-and-goal, hey, here was the chance to put the 49ers out once and for all. This time the decision not to kick backfired — the fourth down play ended with a Wilson fumble — and when Hauschka later kicked the field goal that gave the Hawks a 23-17 lead, it was tempting to second-guess the coach’s a strategy at the 1-yard line.

“It wound up being a kind of sloppy-type finish,” said Carroll. “We had a chance to go ahead and end it, and we didn’t do a very good job of that.”

Perhaps, but maybe it was fitting for this grudge match between NFC rivals to go the distance.

“A 15-round fight,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh called it, “right down to the last.”

A rich new rivalry now has a game that matched its anticipation, but the rivalry now can be put to sleep for a few months, because these teams headed in separate directions.

The 49ers are going home, and the Seahawks are going to New York.

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