SEATTLE — The Seahawks are bringing their game-changing defense — and the 12th Man — to the Big Apple for the Super Bowl.
Seattle's top-ranked defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown on fourth down for the winning points in a 23-17 victory over the 49ers for the NFC title Sunday.
Seattle, the top seed in the NFC playoffs, meets AFC No. 1 seed Denver (15-3) for the NFL title Feb. 2 in East Rutherford, N.J. It's the first trip to the big game for the Seahawks (15-3) since they lost to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season.
Denver, with record-setting quarterback Peyton Manning and company, opened as a 1-point favorite over Seattle on the Glantz-Culver Line.
"It will be a great matchup," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I think it's an extraordinary opportunity to go against a guy that set all the records in the history of the game."
The conference champs had the best records in the league this season, the first time the top seeds have gotten to the Super Bowl since the 2010 game.
Moments after All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick's pass to teammate Malcolm Smith for the clinching interception, Sherman jumped into the stands behind the end zone, saluting the Seahawks' raucous fans. With 12th Man flags waving everywhere, and New York, New York blaring over the loudspeakers, CenturyLink Field rocked like never before.
"That's as sweet as it gets," Sherman said.
"This is really special," added Carroll, who 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 linebacker Aldon Smith jumped offside, hurled the ball toward receiver Jermaine Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.
Steven Hauschka then hit his third field goal, and linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepted in the end zone on the 49ers' final drive. "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 picks in the final quarter, the game was marked by big offensive plays in the second half. That was somewhat shocking considering the strength of both teams' defenses.
And those plays came rapidly.
Marshawn Lynch ran over a teammate, then outraced the 49ers to the corner of the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 10.
After 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin outjumped All-Pro safety Earl Thomas on the next play for a 26-yard touchdown, Doug Baldwin, who played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, stepped up and through San Francisco's coverage on a scintillating 69-yard kickoff return that made the stadium shake.
That set up Hauschka's 40-yard field goal. And a frantic finish.
Seattle took its first lead on Wilson's throw to Kearse with 13:44 left, and CenturyLink rocked again.
The Seahawks had gotten their first turnover moments earlier when Cliff Avril stripped Kaepernick and fellow defensive end Michael Bennett recovered. But Lynch and Wilson botched a handoff on fourth down on the play after Bowman's injury.
It took only two plays for strong safety Kam Chancellor to haul in Kaepernick's underthrow to Boldin, and Hauschka's 47-yarder ended the scoring.
Kaepernick, who rushed for 130 yards, got San Francisco to the Seattle 18 with his arm. But his pass for Crabtree was brilliantly tipped by Sherman to Smith.
"We knew it would come down to us in the back end to win this thing," Sherman said.