Colin Kaepernick had one more throw, one more chance, and plenty of time. It was all there – the opportunity to overcome three gaudy turnovers, to further his stature as one of the NFL’s exceptional young quarterbacks, to secure a return to the Super Bowl – and then it wasn’t.
Richard Sherman reached up and knocked it all away. Of course, it had to be Richard Sherman. The mouthy Seahawks cornerback deflected the game-deciding pass intended for Michael Crabtree, tipped it to teammate Malcolm Smith, and then danced gleefully at the 49ers’ funeral.
The Seahawks are going to New Jersey. The 49ers are going home. And their young quarterback?
Kaepernick will be miserable, if not eternally, at least for the foreseeable future because he made the mistakes. He failed to make the big play, the one that wins the game. That’s the way it works. No surprises. No different than last season.
“I didn’t play good enough to win,” he said after the 49ers’ 23-17 loss to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game at CenturyLink Field. “I turned the ball over three times. I cost us this game.”
One fumble, two interceptions, all occurring in one futile, fatal fourth quarter. And in one of the craziest of games. There were leaping catches, dazzling runs, strange penalties, crushing hits and injuries absorbed by both teams, the worst occurring when NaVorro Bowman’s left knee buckled horrifically in the fourth quarter.
There were head coaches who dislike each other, one running back (Marshawn Lynch) who outplayed the other (Frank Gore), and the matchup between two of the league’s most talented and explosive young quarterbacks.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was daring, accurate and effective after fumbling on the opening possession. But until the fourth quarter, Kaepernick was better, at times spectacular. He seemed intent on flying the 49ers to the East Coast with his feet instead of his arm, and per the Greg Roman playbook, he was full of surprises. He rushed for 98 yards on eight carries in the opening half, his 58-yard run in the second quarter silencing the rowdy, overcaffeinated crowd.
That one play – the one that led to Anthony Dixon’s touchdown plunge and a 10-0 lead – should have been Kaepernick’s signature play, his Sunday night ESPN moment. He was an 18-year-old riding a motorcycle on the freeway during rush hour, galloping to his right, cutting back to his left, breaking four tackles before being yanked down at the Seahawks’ 10-yard line.
His 49ers led 3-0 after the first quarter.
His 49ers led 10-3 at halftime.
His 49ers led 17-13 after three quarters.
And then came the nightmarish fourth that began when Wilson threaded a pass to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown, giving the Seahawks their first lead.
“Our whole mindset is to go down and score,” wide receiver Anquan Boldin said in a somber 49ers locker room. “At no time did that ever waver. There was never a point when we doubted.”
Why would they? Their third-year quarterback has been burnishing a reputation as a big-game, late-game performer, and this postseason was progressing nicely and according to plan: two road playoff games, two playoff wins. And now, entering the fourth quarter, here was Kaepernick again, minutes away from his second consecutive Super Bowl appearance and a chance to avenge last season’s defeat.
Instead, on third and 6 from the 49ers’ 29-yard line, as he was scrambling to the left, Kaepernick was stripped from behind by defensive end Cyril Avril. On the 49ers’ ensuing possession, this time after the bizarre fumble/recovery sequence during which Bowman went down, he guided a pass toward Boldin on the left side and was intercepted by safety Kam Chancellor. And, finally, came the crushing interception in the end zone.
What really stings the 49ers? What will haunt Kaepernick and Roman and Jim Harbaugh for who knows how long? The 49ers were this close, Kaepernick on the cusp of engineering one of those memorable NFL finishes.
Starting from his 22, with 3:37 remaining, he drove the 49ers into the red zone with short passes to Boldin, Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. The crowd sensed potential sea change, the Seahawks in jeopardy of being overtaken in the end.
“Just one drive, one touchdown drive, and we move on,” Harbaugh lamented.
Kaepernick envisioned a different ending. Determined to exploit a one-on-one matchup with Crabtree, he launched a pass toward the right corner of the end zone. And no second thoughts. He would make the same decision again, though preferably not when Sherman is in the vicinity. The 6-foot-3 cornerback did what he so often does – he reached up and deflected the pass that decided the game.
“I think everybody was surprised,” said Sherman. “You throw that, that’s a mistake.”
He said much more than that, mostly criticizing Crabtree, referring to the 49ers’ best receiver as “mediocre.”
But really, how much does his chatter matter? The Seahawks advanced to their second Super Bowl, having denied the 49ers and Kaepernick their seventh.