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In a classic title game, the Seahawks prevail

SEATTLE -- Championship games don't get any better.

This was a heavyweight bout of NFC West powerhouses, with haymakers being landed in every round -- bloodied, broken, but unbowed, as each fighter kept getting up to land one more big shot.

In the end, the Seattle Seahawks just kept swinging away at their bitter rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, and won 23-17 at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.

"If you're a football fan, you have to love that game," Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said. "We believed at the beginning of the year we could get here, but we knew this one was going to be a battle to the end."

Everything about this showdown lived up to its hype -- big plays, huge momentum swings and vicious hitting on almost every series. But in the gut-check moments down the stretch, Seattle was the better team.

The Seahawks, as they've done so many times this season, came up with the game-changing plays in the fourth quarter to reach their dream of a Super Bowl.

Seattle trailed 17-13 entering the fourth quarter, but four huge plays transformed the game.

Gut check No. 1: A 35-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Jermaine Kearse on fourth-and-7 to give Seattle its first lead at 20-17.

The Seahawks lined up for a 53-yard field goal attempt, but coach Pete Carroll changed his mind at Wilson's urging.

"I was kind of begging him," Wilson said. "And [Carroll] decided we were going to go for it. I went with a double count and [the 49ers] jumped offsides."

With a free play, Wilson threw deep for the end zone to Kearse, who made a spectacular catch. Touchdown.

Gut check No. 2: A forced fumble by Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick that defensive linemen Michael Bennett recovered and returned to the San Francisco 6.

Gut check No. 3: An interception by Seattle safety Kam Chancellor at the 49ers' 40.

And that still wasn't enough. It took one more big play.

Gut check No. 4: A game-saving tip from cornerback Richard Sherman.

San Francisco had one last chance to win it after driving to the Seattle 18 in the final seconds. Kaepernick threw a fade in the end zone for receiver Michael Crabtree. Sherman, the man who has made more big plays for the Seattle defense than anyone else this season, tipped it away and linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepted it to seal the victory.

Earlier in the week, Crabtree said Sherman wasn't the best cornerback in the league. After the interception, Sherman ran over to Crabtree and padded him on the rear. Crabtree shoved Sherman in the facemask. Sherman was flagged for taunting, not that it mattered.

"I was making sure everyone knew Crabtree was a mediocre receiver," Sherman said. "And when you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver, that's what happens. I appreciate that he knows that now."

Here's what everyone should know: These Seahawks find a way to win when it counts. They were down 10-0 in the first half Sunday. In fact, Wilson fumbled on the first snap from scrimmage, leading to a 49ers field goal.

"Honestly, we weren't worried about it," Seattle offensive tackle Breno Giacomini said. "We knew the game wouldn't be won in the first or second quarter. We never doubted ourselves."

Things looked iffy when Kaepernick was running through the Seattle defense the first two quarters. He rushed for 98 yards in the first half, including a 58-yard carry when the Seahawks missed four chances to tackle him.

"The guy is a great athlete," Seattle free safety Earl Thomas said of Kaepernick. "But you have to be fearless out there and we were."

Fearless is a good word for the Seahawks. So is confident, even when people doubt them. The Seattle receivers know that all too well. Once it was known Friday that Percy Harvin wouldn't play -- nothing new this season -- some people said the Seattle receivers wouldn't be good enough to win this game.

They were more than good enough on Sunday. Doug Baldwin caught six passes for 106 yards, including one 51-yard catch. He played most of the second half with a badly bruised hip, but still managed a 69-yard kickoff return.

"They keep saying we're pedestrian," Baldwin said of the talk about the receiving corps. "Well, we're going to walk our ass all to the Super Bowl. It irritates the hell out of me when you have guys that constantly talk about how we're average."

There's nothing average about Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, who had a below average first half with 33 yards on 12 carries. No worries. Lynch finished with 109 yards on 22 carries, including a 40-yard touchdown run.

And, of course, there's Wilson, the boy wonder. He has been maligned over the past month for not playing up to his usual standards in the passing game.

He was sacked four times in the first half and seemed out of sync, but he finished 16-of-25 for 215 yards and a touchdown without an interception.

Wilson is the leader of an exceptional group of young men, brash at times, brilliant at others, and brutes when they need to be. In a bruising game of old-school football, they got up off the deck Sunday and lived to fight another day on Super Bowl Sunday against the Denver Broncos.

"Since I was 6 years old playing in the Salvation Army [football] back in Pensacola, Fla., I've dreamed of this moment," Baldwin said. "All of us have, to have the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. I can't explain the feeling. It's surreal."