SEATTLE -- Sullen and beaten, the 49ers joined every other Super Bowl runner-up since 1973. There will be no avenging last season's Super Bowl defeat.

The 49ers stopped short of a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII by losing 23-17 to division-rival Seattle in Sunday's dramatic NFC Championship game at CenturyLink Field.

"We had a fair shot to win it," right tackle Anthony Davis said.

A series of tragic plays, however, spelled the 49ers' demise in the fourth quarter, most notably three turnovers by quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

"I cost us this game," Kaepernick said.

Seattle Seahawks’ Malcolm Smith (53) prepares to catch a pass intended for San Francisco 49ers’ Michael Crabtree (15) in the end zone in the
Seattle Seahawks' Malcolm Smith (53) prepares to catch a pass intended for San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree (15) in the end zone in the fourth quarter of their NFC Championship NFL Game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014. Seattle Seahawks' Malcolm Smith (53) would intercept the pass in the end zone. Seattle defeats San Francisco 23-17. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) ( JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO )

Similar to the 49ers' unsuccessful Super Bowl finish last year, Kaepernick's final pass this season went toward Michael Crabtree in the right side of the end zone. Instead of falling incomplete like last year, Kaepernick's pass was tipped by cornerback Richard Sherman to linebacker Malcolm Smith for a game-clinching interception with 22 seconds remaining.

"The final interception, the ball thrown to Crab, could have gone either way," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "If that goes about an inch or two (more), Crabtree catches it for a touchdown and we win. Richard Sherman made a terrific play."

Sherman agreed, and he celebrated by verbally blasting Crabtree after the game.


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"When you try to come at me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're gonna get," Sherman shouted to Fox Sports' Erin Andrews.

In his ensuing news conference, Sherman said the 49ers wouldn't even pick Crabtree if they could take 20 wideouts in a fantasy-fooball draft, adding, "He knows I'm going to be tough on him for the rest of his career."

In last season's Super Bowl exit, Kaepernick unsuccessfully took three shots to Crabtree from the 5-yard line. This time, the 49ers marched 60 yards in three minutes to the Seahawks' 18-yard line, where Kaepernick then heaved his fateful, final pass on first down.

"I had a one-on-one matchup with Crabtree. I'll take that any time," said Kaepernick, who totaled nearly as many rushing yards (130) as passing yards (153).

Kaepernick looked indeed poised to win a second-straight NFC Championship via a fourth-quarter comeback, having pulled that off a year ago in Atlanta.

A 16-yard completion to Crabtree moved the 49ers to the Seahawks' 29. Then came an 11-yard reception by Vernon Davis. Then came, well, The End.

"The ball was kind of inside. I did what I could," said Crabtree, who later fired back on Twitter regarding Sherman's taunts and called him a "fake" star.

Nonetheless, Sherman's play sent the top-seeded Seahawks (15-3) to the Super Bowl, where they'll face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Feb. 2 in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Seahawks didn't lead until Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse on fourth-and-7 with 13:44 remaining. Aldon Smith jumped offside before the snap, allowing Wilson to take a free shot at Kearse against Carlos Rogers' coverage.

"They threw the ball at me, and I've got to make a play on the ball," said Rogers, who returned from a hamstring strain that kept him out of the preceding playoff wins at Green Bay and Carolina.

Shortly after Kearse's touchdown, Kaepernick lost a fumble on a sack by Cliff Avril, who took an outside path around Anthony Davis. Michael Bennett recovered the fumble and returned it to the 6-yard line with 10:07 remaining.

"We can't put this on Kap," Davis said. "It's more my fault than the quarterback's fault."

Although the Seahawks didn't convert that turnover into points, the 49ers still sustained a serious setback on the drive. Star linebacker NaVorro Bowman injured his left knee -- preliminarily called a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Harbaugh said -- on a potential takeaway at the 49ers' 1-yard line.

When the Seahawks promptly turned the ball over anyhow with a fourth-down fumble, the 49ers had 8:18 to rally. Two snaps later, Kam Chancellor intercepted a Kaepernick pass intended for Anquan Boldin at the 49ers' 40.

"Kap never saw him," Harbaugh said. Kaepernick, however, said he saw Chancellor and thought he could "put it over his head."

Kaepernick also had second thoughts on his second intercepted pass. "Could've put it a little deeper in the corner and gave Crab a chance," said Kaepernick, who stuck by his belief that Sherman's single coverage was his best option.

"Not many people get to be in this arena," Harbaugh said. "I'm proud of our guys for the fight they showed today and all season."

  • Thompson: 49ers defense holds strong, even without its best player. PAGE 3

  • 49ers' NaVorro Bowman, Mike Iupati suffer serious injuries. page 4

  • The Richard Sherman-Michael Crabtree verbal battle gets nasty. page 4

  • Harbaugh says "loophole" prevented him from challenging disputed call. PAGE 4

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    afc CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

    Denver 26, New England 16 » Peyton Manning (above) leads the Denver Broncos past Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and into the Super Bowl. PAGE 5


    SUPER BOWL

    Denver vs. Seattle, at The Meadowlands in New Jersey,
    Feb. 2, 3:30 p.m. FOX