The challenge for the San Francisco 49ers was worthy of a champion.

Three and a half minutes left in a bruising NFC Championship Game against the Seahawks. Down six with the ball facing the NFL’s best defense. Seventy-eight yards to go (which must have seemed like a mile in front of a frenzied CenturyLink Field crowd of 68,454).

“It was one drive,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “One touchdown drive and we move on. That’s what our guys believed would happen.”

That’s what nearly happened.

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San Francisco drove to the Seattle 18-yard line, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick lofted the potential game-winning throw to the end zone, but Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, in the decisive moment, tipped the ball away from receiver Michael Crabtree and into the hands of teammate Malcolm Smith. The clinching interception secured Seattle’s 23-17 win and dramatically ended San Francisco’s quest to reach a second straight Super Bowl.

The 49ers last three seasons have ended in the NFC Championship, Super Bowl and NFC Championship, respectively — all without a title.

“It’s great competition,” said Harbaugh of coming up short again. “Not many people get to be in this arena. I’m proud of our guys for the fight they showed today and all season.”

Much of the attention centered on the final play, particularly the individual battle between Crabtree and Sherman.

Kaepernick’s thoughts as the play unfolded?

“I had a one-on-one matchup with Crab. I’ll take that every time,” he said.

Crabtree said the ball was thrown a shade too far inside, which allowed Sherman to bat it away with one hand. Kaepernick, who had turnovers on San Francisco’s final three possessions, admitted the pass could’ve been placed deeper into the corner.

“That really could’ve gone either way,” Harbaugh said. “If that goes about an inch or two, Crabtree catches it for a touchdown and we win. But Richard Sherman made a terrific play.”

Sherman wasn’t shy afterward. On the field, he earned an unsportsmanlike penalty for taunting after directing a “choking” gesture directed at Kaepernick.

In postgame interviews, including a particularly brash segment on TV, Sherman directed his fire toward Crabtree, whom he called “mediocre.”

Asked about the back and forth with Sherman, Crabtree said: “I ain’t getting into that. You know what time it is. When you’re on the field, he ain’t doing nothing. That’s one play. He knows it.

“That’s probably the only play he made the whole game.”

That one play finally settled it, though San Francisco had a few others to lament. Kaepernick had an underthrown ball on the previous possession intercepted by Seattle safety Kam Chancellor.

The series before, Kaepernick fumbled the ball when Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril knocked it free.

The visitors also had to deal with the losses of defensive stalwart Navorro Bowman to a gruesome knee injury, believed to be a torn ACL, and starting left guard Mike Iupati to a broken ankle.

Such adversity led some 49ers to be asked if the best team really won Sunday.

“Nah,” said receiver Anquan Boldin. “I still think we’re the best team.”

That sentiment, though, wasn’t shared by Harbaugh.

“I’m not saying that,” he said. “Congratulations to Seattle. … They won the football game. They made some very big plays, we made some very big plays — it was a 15-round fight right down to the last.”

Kaepernick vs. Wilson
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick had more total yards than Seattle’s Russell Wilson, but also committed three turnovers.
Quarterback, team PC-PA-Int TD Yards Rush-Yards Tot Off Fum lost
Colin Kaepernick, SF 14-24-2 1 153 11-130 283 1
Russell Wilson, Sea 16-25-0 1 215 5-0 215 1

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or On Twitter @joshuamayers