/

Seahawks stand tall to edge Niners in NFC title game

AP

Richard Sherman did a CenturyLink Leap.

Golden Tate grabbed a 12th Man flag and circled the field with it.

Even team owner Paul Allen made an appearance and gave a victory speech.

The Seattle Seahawks are headed to the Big Apple for the Super Bowl.

“To see all our work that we put in — the mornings, the nights, the weights, all your life, as a young player and in the NFL,” Malcolm Smith said after his end zone interception with 22 seconds remaining clinched the 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. “It’s amazing.”

Seattle’s top-ranked defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass on fourth down for the winning points. 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.

“It will be a great matchup,” 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.”

Moments after Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s pass to Smith for the interception, the All-Pro cornerback 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,” said Sherman, who also went into several rants about 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree, whom he called a “sorry receiver.”

“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 Aldon Smith jumped offside, hurled the ball to Jermaine Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.

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,” 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.

Seattle took its first lead on Wilson’s throw to Kearse with 13:44 left, and CenturyLink rocked again.

The place went silent soon after when Niners All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman sustained an ugly left knee injury midway and was carted off. Bowman, who was having a huge game, had forced a fumble at the San Francisco 1, with Seattle retaining possession only to turn the ball over on downs

“I never heard him yell like that, or even stay down for a moment,” teammate Patrick Willis said of Bowman.

It took only two plays for Chancellor to haul in Kaepernick’s underthrow to Boldin, and Hauschka’s 47-yarder ended the scoring.

But not the excitement.

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.