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Seahawks 23, 49ers 17

Seahawks Super Bowl-bound thanks to defense

The Seahawks’ Malcolm Smith celebrates after hauling in the game-clinching interception in the end zone with 22 seconds left.

Jonathan smith/Getty Images

The Seahawks’ Malcolm Smith celebrates after hauling in the game-clinching interception in the end zone with 22 seconds left.

SEATTLE — The Seattle Seahawks are bringing their game-changing defense — and the 12th Man — to the Super Bowl.

Seattle’s top-ranked defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass on fourth down for the winning points in a 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday.

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Seattle will meet Denver (15-3) for the Lombardi Trophy in two weeks at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It’s the first trip to the big game for the Seahawks (15-3) since they lost to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season.

The conference champs tied for the best record in the league this year. It’s only the second time the top seeds have gotten to the Super Bowl in 20 seasons.

It also is a classic matchup of Denver’s record-setting offense against the NFL’s stingiest defense.

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With 22 seconds left in the game, San Francisco was poised to reach the end zone. Colin Kaepernick lofted a pass to the right corner of the end zone for Michael Crabtree. But Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman tipped the ball and linebacker Malcolm Smith hauled in the deflection to seal the victory.

Moments later, the All-Pro cornerback jumped into the stands behind the end zone, saluting the Seahawks’ raucous fans. With 12th Man flags waving everywhere, and ‘‘New York, New York’’ blaring over the loudspeakers, CenturyLink Field rocked like never before.

‘‘That’s as sweet as it gets,’’ Sherman said.

‘‘This is really special,’’ added coach Pete Carroll, who has turned around the Seahawks in four seasons in charge. ‘‘It would really be a mistake to not remember the connection and the relationship between this football team and the 12th Man and these fans. It’s unbelievable.’’

San Francisco (14-5) led, 17-13, when Wilson, given a free play because 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith jumped offside, hurled the ball to Jermaine Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.

After Kam Chancellor picked off an underthrown Kaepernick pass, Steven Hauschka kicked a 47-yarder with 3:37 left to push the lead to 23-17.

‘‘This feels even sweeter, with the amazing support we have had from the 12th Man,’’ team owner Paul Allen said, comparing this Super Bowl trip with the previous one.

Until Seattle’s top-ranked defense forced a fumble and had two picks in the final period, the game was marked by big offensive plays in the second half. That was somewhat shocking considering the strength of both teams’ defenses.

Marshawn Lynch, in full Beast Mode, ran over a teammate and then outsped the 49ers to the corner of the end zone for a 40-yard TD, making it 10-10.

Kaepernick then was responsible for consecutive 22-yard gains, hitting Crabtree, then rushing to the Seattle 28. His fumble on the next play was recovered by center Jonathan Goodwin, who even lumbered for 2 yards.

Anquan Boldin outleapt All-Pro safety Earl Thomas on the next play for a 26-yard TD.

Then, Doug Baldwin, who played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, stepped up with a scintillating 69-yard kickoff return.

That set up Hauschka’s 40-yard field goal.

Seattle took its first lead on Wilson’s throw to Kearse with 13:44 left.

The place went silent soon after when Niners All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman sustained what Harbaugh said appears to be a torn ACL in his left knee. Bowman, who was having a huge game, had forced a fumble at the San Francisco 1, but Lynch recovered.

The Seahawks had gotten their first turnover moments earlier when Cliff Avril stripped Kaepernick and Michael Bennett recovered. But Lynch and Wilson botched a handoff on fourth down on the play after Bowman’s injury.

It took only two plays for Chancellor to haul in Kaepernick’s underthrow to Boldin, and Hauschka’s 47-yarder ended the scoring.

But not the excitement.

Kaepernick, who rushed for 130 yards, got San Francisco to the Seattle 18 with his arm. But his pass for Crabtree was brilliantly tipped by Sherman to Smith.

‘‘We knew it would come down to us in the back end to win this thing,’’ Sherman said.

The final play was similar to last year’s Super Bowl ending, when Kaepernick missed Crabtree in the end zone from the 5.

‘‘It’s tough. Any time you get this close to the Super Bowl and lose, it’s pretty upsetting,’’ tight end Vernon Davis said. ‘‘We just didn’t get it. We’ve been down this road before in the same kind of situation. It’s hard.’’

Whether it was nerves or just a great play by Aldon Smith, Wilson fumbled on Seattle’s first snap. Smith got credit for a sack and a recovery, too — a defender’s dream — at the Seahawks 15. The turnover set up a Phil Dawson 25-yard field goal

Seattle simply had no answers for Kaepernick’s runs. He gained 98 yards on the ground in the first half.

But he was less effective in the second half and was plagued by turnovers.

For the Seahawks, it’s on to New Jersey, where Carroll once coached the Jets for a season. That didn’t end well — he was fired so the team could hire Rich Kotite. He heads back with a chance to add a Super Bowl crown to two national titles as coach at Southern California.

‘‘It’s quite a magical moment,’’ Carroll said. ‘‘You can’t really grasp the moment. Did we really do this?’’

Yep — the Seahawks and their 12th Man.

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