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The NFC Championship Game was in the air, a deep pass from San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick spiraling toward the end zone. It figures that a football game of attrition, the roughest and most taxing of this Seahawks’ run, would come down to this moment: Two players, one winner, no do-overs.

Competing for the ball were perhaps the most bitter rivals in this bitter rivalry: San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. As Kaepernick’s throw descended, as 68,454 fans seemingly hyperventilated, Sherman tipped the ball with his left hand, away from Crabtree and into the hands of Malcolm Smith, the trailing Seattle linebacker. Smith dropped to one knee. Touchback.

The Seahawks had the ball, and 22 seconds later, they had the Super Bowl appearance they spent a year working to achieve, via a 23-17 victory at CenturyLink Field. Players on the sideline erupted in celebration. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll lifted his arms as high as he could. And Sherman, whose fabulous game-saving play will go down in Seattle sports history, was off taunting Crabtree and the 49ers.

It wasn’t graceful, but it was typical. The Seahawks aren’t floating to the Super Bowl as if on a cloud. They’re stomping. They’re dancing. They’re sticking their chests out and declaring that, in the most rugged test this young team has faced, they’ve shown championship mettle.

“Losing was not an option,” fullback Michael Robinson said. “It just wasn’t on the table. If you gave us a multiple-choice quiz, that choice wouldn’t have been on this test.”

It wasn’t an option even after quarterback Russell Wilson fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. It wasn’t an option even after the Seahawks fell behind 10-0. It wasn’t an option in the decisive play, with the All-Pro Sherman on an island with a formidable playmaker in Crabtree.

Sherman won. Then he barked at Crabtree and gave Kaepernick the choke sign, which drew a penalty. An hour later, the loose-lipped star wasn’t finished.

“I was making sure everybody knew that Crabtree was a mediocre receiver. Mediocre,” Sherman said. “And when you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver, that’s what happens. Game.”

Said Crabtree of Sherman: “He’s a TV guy. I’m not a TV guy. I play ball. He made one play and he talks. It was a good play.”

Sherman has been upset with Crabtree since last summer. Both attended Arizona star receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s charity event. While there, Sherman went to shake Crabtree’s hand, and Crabtree tried to start a fight, according to Sherman’s older brother, Branton.

“I’m going to make a play and embarrass him,” Richard Sherman vowed that day.

Sherman does plenty of planning, and his brother is often around to hear about what’s in store. Sherman’s incredible play at the end of the game? He had done something similar last month against the New York Giants, tipping a pass that safety Earl Thomas intercepted to ensure a shutout victory.

“I did that on purpose, bro,” Richard said afterward.

“Nah, that was luck,” Branton replied.

“OK, I’ll do it again some time,” Richard said.

It’s a good thing Richard Sherman repeated the effort. The signature moment completed a full-circle tale for a Seahawks defense that lost the lead in the game’s final 31 seconds during last year’s playoff loss to Atlanta. The defense, already one of the league’s best, promised to be better this season.

After a season of ranking No. 1 in the NFL in numerous statistical categories, the defense held the lead this time.

“That’s the way we’ve played the whole season, man,” defensive end Michael Bennett said. “These guys are relentless. All we do is practice turnovers on defense, and we just wanted to be in that situation, where the game was on our back because we were like, ‘Hey, if we’re going to win this game, then it’s time to win it.’ ”

The Seahawks had to absorb the 49ers’ best punch to win it. San Francisco did a brilliant job of spreading out the Seahawks defense and designing creative plays for Kaepernick to run. He rushed for 130 yards on 11 carries, including a 58-yarder in the first half. He did most of his damage as the 49ers built a 10-0 lead, running for 101 of those yards.

But despite their offensive issues over the last month, the Seahawks were determined to respond.

They did it with Wilson, who threw for 215 yards, escaping defenders and throwing downfield. They did it with Doug Baldwin catching six passes for 106 yards and returning a kickoff 69 yards. And they did it with Marshawn Lynch rushing for 109 yards, including a 40-yarder that tied the game at 10 in the third quarter.

The Seahawks had never been tested like this before, not on a stage so grand, not against an opponent with so much postseason experience. But in the end, the challenge only revealed their resolve.

“This game was like a tease,” defensive tackle Brandon Mebane said. “It was like watching a movie, and the superhero is getting beat up, and you’re like, ‘Man, how’s the superhero going to win again?’ We found a way.”

It was a menacing game, good down to the last wince. But with a tip and a taunt, the Seahawks are Super Bowl bound. Only a team specializing in audacity could manage such a feat.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or On Twitter @JerryBrewer