SEATTLE (AP) — Pete Carroll knows all about successfully chasing championships. Yet this pursuit is particularly sweet.
"It's quite a magical moment," Carroll said Sunday after his Seattle Seahawks won the NFC title. "You can't really grasp the moment. Did we really do this?"
Yep. The Seahawks and their 12th Man are headed for the Big Apple and the Super Bowl.
"Every ounce of your energy, every moment spent watching film has been worth it, because we made it," said All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. His game-saving deflection in the end zone with 22 seconds left was caught by teammate Malcolm Smith to clinch the 23-17 win over division rival San Francisco on Sunday night. "It's fantastic."
A fantastic matchup, too.
Seattle will meet Denver (15-3) for the NFL title in two weeks in the New Jersey Meadowlands. It's the first trip to the big game for the Seahawks (15-3) since they lost to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season.
The conference champs had the best records in the league this year, the second time the top seeds have gotten to the Super Bowl in 20 seasons. It also is a classic confrontation of Denver's record-setting offense led by Peyton Manning against the NFL's stingiest defense. Denver opened as a 1-point favorite over Seattle on the Glantz-Culver Line.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," said Sherman, who went on a rant about how 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree is a 'sorry receiver.' "They're an unbelievable, record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That's as tough a game as you can get in the Super Bowl. The No. 1 defense against the No. 1 offense. It doesn't happen like this too often."
That top-ranked defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse on fourth down for the winning points.
Moments after Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick's pass to Smith for the interception, the NFL leader in picks did a CenturyLink Leap into the stands behind the end zone, saluting the Seahawks' raucous fans. With 12th Man flags waving everywhere — receiver Golden Tate paraded around the field with one — and "New York, New York" blaring over the loudspeakers, CenturyLink Field rocked like never before.
"This is really special," said Carroll, who won two national championships at Southern California and has turned around the Seahawks in four seasons in charge. "It would really be a mistake to not remember the connection and the relationship between this football team and the 12th Man and these fans. It's unbelievable."
San Francisco (14-5) led 17-13 when Wilson, given a free play as Aldon Smith jumped offside, hurled the ball to Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.
"He's tremendous catching the football," Wilson said. "He's got great hands, and he's got that desire, you know? So that showed up tonight."
Steven Hauschka then kicked his third field goal following Kam Chancellor's pick, and Smith intercepted in the end zone on the 49ers' final possession.
"This feels even sweeter, with the amazing support we have had from the 12th Man," team owner Paul Allen said, comparing this Super Bowl trip to the previous one.
Until Seattle's top-ranked defense forced a fumble and had two interceptions in the final period, the game was marked by big offensive plays in the second half. That was somewhat shocking considering the strength of both teams' defenses.