Cigar Thoughts, NFC Championship: Seahawks Vanquish 49ers 23-17, Advance To Super Bowl

worth every penny. - Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks overcome a 10-point deficit, beat 49ers to advance to the Super Bowl.

I've been a Seattle sports fan my entire cognitive life. For the better part of 30 years, I've languished in hopes of some team from the region God saw fit to place me in achieve greatness; to see the home squad win a game with meaning outside of the Pacific Northwest. The 2001 Mariners gave me a taste of cheering for historical greatness, but they faltered on the doorstep of the World Series. The 2005 'Hawks were a joyous surprise but again, no title. So, it's perhaps needless to say that never in my life have I cheered for a team laden with such heavy expectations as the 2013-'14 Seahawks.

It's weird, cheering for a team with such outsized expectations. During a three-game stretch towards the end of last season, the Seahawks outscored their opponents 150-30. In the second round of the playoffs against the Falcons, they were a field goal away from one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history. Back then, it seemed to come out of nowhere. A year later, it's clear that the Seahawks' emergence was all a part of the plan; like a flower blooming at the appointed time, or a caterpillar becoming a dragonfly or whatever.

The change in expectations came fast, faster than I was prepared for. A life spent cheering for teams that were at or around .500 sort of dull you. Streaks of excellence seem destined for regression; it's what we're used to. Except this team never regressed. In fact, the expectations changed so rapidly that a major contingent of the fan base has openly bemoaned the fact that the Seahawks aren't blowing teams out. In the playoffs. I say that not as a criticism, I'm just blacked out and hammering on my keyboard like a happy walrus trying to put all of this into some sort of relatable perspective. I questioned this team, too. Somehow, this franchise that has always seemed like a coin flip on any given Sunday became a megalithic enterprise, a force so powerful that everything it does reverberates throughout the entire community; and cheering for something like that is a new experience.

We see them go on runs where they look three touchdowns better than everyone else in the league, stretches so dominant that the feeling after one-possession victories feels dangerously close to a letdown; like we're cheering for a college powerhouse where margin of victory affects the team's path to a championship. And so, after nearly two months with more stomach-turning games than not, I entered this game with trepidation. The 49ers had won eight straight games, including a win over the Seahawks, whose offense seemed to evaporate over the same period of time. They beat good teams on the road. They were in the NFC Championship game for the third straight year. Their fans managed to snag an alarming amount of seats near the field.

The 49ers-Seahawks narrative that has, for better or worse, dominated the conversation both here and at Niners Nation (and on Twitter and in real life and in every conversation between the Pacific Northwest and the Bay Area) would be determined, for at least a calendar year, by the outcome of this game. The two previous blowouts in Seattle would be rendered footnotes if the 49ers were able to win this game by even one point. I didn't sleep very well last night.

Then Marshawn Lynch (22 carries, 109 yards, 1 touchdown) happened. Bobby Wagner (15 tackles) happened. Kam Chancellor (11 tackles, 2 passes defensed, an interception, and a second bludgeoning of Vernon Davis) happened. Doug Baldwin (6 catches, 106 yards) and Russell Wilson (104.6 passer efficiency) and Jermaine Kearse (44 yards, touchdown) happened. The Legion boomed, the Beast fed, the Russell rustled, and the Seattle Seahawks, without ever abandoning the characteristics that got them here, won enough battles during the course of this game to reserve their spot in Super Bowl XLVIXIIVM*.

*I never learned Roman numerals but I'm pretty sure this is 48.

That's not to say this game was a shoo-in. In fact, the 49ers, to my eyes, outplayed the Seahawks for much of it. A discordant tone was set on the first play from scrimmage, when Aldon Smith stripped a scrambling Wilson and jumped on the loose ball to give the 49ers possession on Seattle's doorstep. With the defense ushered onto the stage before anyone in the stadium was prepared for it, they were forced to bow their back.

After the first two post-turnover plays garnered a meager four yards, the Niners dialed up a designed QB draw, which was unsuccessful. I may have been reading into it too much at the time, but it signaled to me one of two things: a reluctance to have Colin Kaepernick pass in high-leverage situations or a firm confidence in Kaepernick's running ability. In hindsight, it may have been both, as the San Francisco QB was far more effective on the ground (130 yards on 11 carries, 11.8 yards per, zero turnovers) than he was on pass plays (153 yards on 26 dropbacks, 5.9 yards per, 3 turnovers). Phil Dawson then kicked a short field goal to open the scoring -- an outcome that both teams could claim as a small victory.

After the teams traded punts on the next three possessions, the 49ers retook control of the ball deep in their own territory. On third down, with the play busted and Kaepernick rolling desperately to his right, Richard Sherman was (rightly) flagged for defensive holding, a penalty that sustained a drive that eventually turned into a one yard Anthony Dixon(?) touchdown on 4th and goal. Along the way, Kaepernick reminded all of us how dynamic he can be even when the pass game isn't clicking, tallying 58 yards on a single rush and going over 100 yards rushing in the first half alone. Up 10-0 in the second quarter, the San Francisco 49ers, a team whose roster was constructed for the sole purpose of getting leads and protecting them, looked to be in wonderful position to pull off the upset.

The 'Hawks, to the season-long delight of their fans, are a team built around fortitude. It may sound silly, but fortitude is how you turn over all 53 roster spots in three years and change a 4-12 team full of has-beens and bad contracts into a trip to the Super Bowl. Fortitude is how you go 44 games without losing by more than one score which is, by the way, completely bonkers. Fortitude is knowing that no matter what the situation is -- down by 17 in the second half, down by 21, losing your Pro Bowl cornerback and then losing his backup, playing half the year without 80% of your starting offensive line -- you've got a chance to win. Fortitude is focusing on going 1-0 every week, no matter how hard it may be or how cliche it may sound.

Fortitude is not always glamorous. Sometimes, fortitude is re-inflating a stadium after falling behind by two scores at home in the conference championship, cobbling together a scoring drive after registering a sorry 44 yards on 12 plays. Nine plays, 62 yards, and a much-needed 51-yard strike to Doug "Y'all Better Start Paying Attention To Me" Baldwin later, Steven Hauschka was knocking a field goal through the uprights that brought the deficit back to seven.

The second half began with San Fran receiving the kick while harboring that same 10-3 advantage. The two teams combined for a withered 254 yards in the first 30 minutes of play -- a number that, for what it's worth, said more about the greatness and ferocity of the defenses than it did about the shortcomings of the offenses -- and it became clear that if Seattle was going to win this game, they'd need a big play.

That play came with 10:03 left in the third quarter, when Lynch took a handoff and sashayed 40 yards into the endzone with all the grace and eloquence of a bulldozer, evening up the ledger at ten apiece and resetting the NFC Championship to a 25-minute war for supremacy. To their credit, the 49ers were totally prepared. They answered Seattle's best punch with a beautiful counter-combo, driving a stubborn football 83 yards on just six plays, three of which went for 20+ yards on a defense that was sensational at limiting explosive plays all season. The possession culminated with a 26-yard TD strike to the most "Man's Game" receiver in the NFL, Anquan Boldin. The Niners are really good at football, and no matter how deep the animosity runs, hats must be tipped in their direction.

The Seahawks offense had spent the last five and a half games trying to sprint through waist deep pudding, and after easing many of our fears with the touchdown drive that produced more relief than exuberance, they were back down by seven. Here's the thing about championships, however: you're not gonna win one with a single play. Championship aspirations are powered by sustained excellence and Seattle was being put to it by a team that bore very little resemblance to the one that had been blown out in their last two trips to Century Link. Fortunately for 'the 12th Man, the team was up to the task.

One of the things that the John Schneider / Pete Carroll era has focused on is accumulating players that can "flip the field." With Percy Harvin out for the vast majority of the season, Seattle's been struggling with getting that field-flipping production on kickoffs. A few weeks ago, Robert Turbin coughed up the ball without contact on a kickoff return, permanently removing him from the role and moving Doug Baldwin into it. It seemed a fairly lateral move until today, when Baldwin took the post-Boldin-TD kick 69 yards into field goal range, granting the Seahawks offense something of a free pass against a stout Niners defense. The resultant Hauschka kick whittled the 49ers' lead to four.

After a three and out and a fortunate "running into (not "roughing") the kicker" penalty on Seattle, the 'Hawks regained possession. They strung together a couple of first downs before facing a 4th and 7 on San Fran's 35 yard line, which is within Hauschka's range and yet, for some reason, the team wasn't prepared to kick it. The play clock dwindled maddeningly to :01 and Pete Carroll used his first timeout with his kicking unit scrambling to get in place. Then, whether by luck or design, he sent the offense back on the field. I'll go on record as saying I thought this was a mistake at the time.

I was wrong.

The 49ers jumped offside on a hard count on that pendulous 4th down play, giving Wilson free reign to aim big when he may have lowered his sights otherwise. One thing I've always admired about the Seahawks QB is his willingness to take shots when the shots present themselves. With a free play, Wilson lofted a ball deep down the right seam, where both Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse had a rare step on their defenders. With the ball spiraling down towards the endzone, Baldwin gave way to Kearse, who cradled Wilson's pass in his hands for the go-ahead touchdown. Seattle had finally gained the upper hand and it had only taken 46 minutes.

Protecting a lead for the first time all game, the pressure shifted to Seattle's league-best defense. Last year, the Seahawks excelled in every aspect of defensive play except pressure on the quarterback. This past off-season, the 'Hawks sought to remedy their situation by acquiring free-agent defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. They were worth every penny, if only for what happened next. Six plays into San Fran's first attempt at a comeback drive, Avril beat his man and tracked Kaepernick like this muhfuggin' awesome ass camera-mounted falcon hunting other flying things (2:25 mark) and stripped the ball as Kaepernick started his windmill-esque throwing motion.

The ball clattered to the turf and unlike the first three fumbles of the game, a Seahawk recovered it. Michael Bennett, to be exact. Taking over balls deep in Francisco territory, Seattle was unable to capitalize. Their third down "completion" to Kearse probably should have been ruled an interception by Navarro Bowman, who played one of the best games of his career but who, in addition to not being credited with a pick, apparently tore the shit out of his knee on the play. Bowman was the second Pro Bowl 49er to leave the game with injury (Mike Iupati in the first half)  but his effort was granted some poetic justice as Wilson and Lynch fumbled the exchange on the 4th and goal play, giving the Niners better field position than if Bowman had been awarded the INT.

Better field position, as Triumph might say, for the Seahawks to poop on. Two plays into the reprieve drive that San Francisco had been given, Kaepernick woefully underthrew Boldin, allowing Chancellor to make the pick. Seattle's field position eventually turned into three more points and the stage was officially set.

Down 23-17, with under four minutes left and all three timeouts at their disposal, the 49ers took the field against one of the best defenses the NFL has seen in the last dozen years. They marched onward stoically, admirably, nigh-heroically. A key 4th down conversion from Kaepernick to an otherwise silent Frank Gore breathed life into the lungs of the red and gold. A couple more first downs were had and the Niners found themselves well within striking distance. It was then that Kaepernick decided to take his shot. I don't know if it was Aloe Blacc telling him he was the man through his Beats or what, but Kaep targeted his most explosive receiver, Michael Crabtree, who was well covered by Richard Sherman.

As the ball descended towards the two elite athletes and a football-crazed nation held it's breath, Sherman reached up and deflected the would-be game-winner into the air, where it was corralled by Seattle's Malcolm Smith. A few kneeldowns later, the Seahawks were headed to their second Super Bowl, their yellow-bricked road extending before them for two more glorious weeks.

Other stuff:

~For all the talk about Russell Wilson's recent decline, he actually finished the season with better numbers than he did during his eye-opening rookie season and he's made plays when called upon more often than not. Today was a perfect example; in a game where every play was saturated with leverage, Wilson took what was there to be taken and made plays within the parameters of the game he was playing. He may never assault the single-season TD or passing yards records, but he may very well end up among the most efficient QBs to ever play in the NFL.

~Frank Gore, whose career against the Seahawks is gilded to say the least, was held to 14 yards on 11 carries (1.27 YPC). Snuffing him out transported the entire weight of the offense on Kaepernick's shoulders. Shutting Gore down was a major victory for a defense that has been spotty against the run at times this season.

~With the game teetering on its fulcrum in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick turned the ball over on San Francisco's final three drives. He has done some incredible things in his young career, many of them in crunch time, but today, when his team needed him to step up more than they had all season, he was weighed, measured, and found wanting.

~Both teams finished with 308 yards. Sounds about right.

~Russell Wilson was hit or sacked on 14 of 30 dropbacks, by my count. That he produced anything offensively is a miracle.

~Golden Tate (4 catches, 31 yards) has now been targeted 12 times this postseason with just five catches and 44 yards to show for it. Seattle's gonna need him to show out big time against Denver.

~Which reminds me: the Seahawks' next game is against the Denver Broncos. In the Super Bowl.

It's been a long, arduous journey to get here. Not so much this season, when most everything has fallen into place; no, I'm talking about the whole Schneider/Carroll/Wilson era -- a deliberate overhaul of everything Seattle fans had come to expect from their pro football team. The record-setting roster turnover, the drafting of guys nobody else had on their board, the decision to go with a third-round QB instead of the shiny free agent they'd just signed -- all of that has led to this: a chance to play 60 minutes of football for a glory that will never leave us if acquired.

Six months ago, I wrote about this team as a crew of swarthy pirates hell-bent on making every harbor in the kingdom their own. Eighteen swash-buckling games later they've set their sails directly on the greatest prize this game has to offer. To us, this is a mountaintop experience; beating the hated rivals, claiming the division and the conference, overcoming an obstacle that seemed to grow with each passing day this week. To them, however, it was just another boulder on their way up said mountain. They've got greater heights in their sights; two weeks from now, we'll see if they can take the final step.

There will be much to discuss over the upcoming fortnight but for now, celebrate. This is the biggest win in the history of the Seattle Seahawks organization, so pour your scotch, light your cigar, and give a cheers! to the person next to you. We've waited a long time to feel what we're feeling now as Seahawks fans -- enjoy the hell out of it. Here's to doing all of this again in two weeks.

JACSON ON TWITTER

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