Colin Kaepernick threw 11 interceptions this season. Six of those were into the hands of the Seattle Seahawks.
And in the end, Kaepernick’s final two interceptions and a fumble – all coming in the fourth quarter – proved to be the difference in Seattle’s 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game at CenturyLink Field.
Though the Niners came into the game with an eight-game winning streak and two straight road playoff wins, they couldn’t overcome some costly mistakes late in Sunday's game. Instead of a return trip to the Super Bowl, it will be this year’s NFC West-champion Seahawks that will play the Denver Broncos in New Jersey.
The 49ers made the first big play of the game, with Aldon Smith stripping Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson of the ball on the game’s first play from scrimmage. That set up a Phil Dawson field goal to give the visitors a 3-0 lead.
They led at halftime, 10-3, thanks to a 58-yard run by Kaepernick that set up Anthony Dixon’s 1-yard TD plunge in the second quarter.
And, heading into the fourth quarter, the 49ers held a 17-13 lead.
But Seattle took a 20-17 lead on a 35-yard TD pass from Wilson to Jermaine Kearse that proved to be the winning score. San Francisco has several opportunities to regain the lead, but gave the ball away three times.
On the 49ers’ ensuing possession, Kaepernick was hit while trying to bring the ball up to throw, and the ball was recovered by Seattle. Though the 49ers eventually held on downs, Kaepernick threw an interception on the second play of San Francisco’s next possession that led to a Seattle field goal and a 23-17 lead.
Finally, San Francisco took over from its own 22 with 3:37 remaining. Kaepernick led the 49ers all the way to the Seattle 18-yard line with 30 seconds remaining, when his pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone was tipped and then intercepted by Malcolm Smith.
With 22 seconds remaining, the Seahawks performed three kneel-downs and the game was over.
The 49ers made it to the NFC title game for the third straight year and won 14 of 19 games, but two of those losses were to the Seahawks – and both defeats were at CenturyLink Field.
“It was a 15-round fight and our guys fought great from the beginning,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. Added Harbaugh: "Not many people get to be in this arena. Proud of our guys for the way they fought this whole season."
The Niners defense three times stopped Seattle in the red zone, including a fourth-quarter goal-line stand in which All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered a game-ending injury, initially assessed as a torn ACL by the 49ers.
But, in the end, the Niners offense fell 18 yards short of one final comeback victory this season.