SEATTLE -- Can anything surpass the pain of a Super Bowl loss?
For the San Francisco 49ers, the answer might be yes. It's difficult to imagine a more despondent scene than the 49ers’ locker room after a 23-17 loss at rival Seattle on Sunday evening in the NFC Championship Game.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who threw an interception in the end zone with 22 seconds to go, sat at his locker, staring straight ahead. He appeared shell-shocked. Around him, teammates quietly dressed. There were long stretches when not a word was uttered.
The pain San Francisco was experiencing was not simply emotional, either. In the midst of the despair, were two of the team’s best players -- inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman and Mike Iupati -- both using crutches to maneuver through the locker room.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said a preliminary exam points to a torn ACL for Bowman -- a candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award -- and a fractured ankle for Iupati.
“It’s tough,” San Francisco running back Frank Gore said. “It’s just really tough.”
For the third straight postseason under Harbaugh, the 49ers are headed toward the offseason on a bitter note. Two years ago, the 49ers lost in the title game at home to the New York Giants in overtime.
Last year, in the Super Bowl, the 49ers couldn’t punch in a touchdown from the Baltimore Ravens’ 5-yard line in the final moments. Like Sunday, that game ended on a failed pass attempt from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree.
More heartache came Sunday night on the field of their most bitter rival. The 49ers, who took a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, saw Seattle outscore them 20-7 in the second half. Still, San Francisco had its chance.
The 49ers took over on their own 22-yard line with 3:37 remaining. Fueled by 17-yard pass from Kaepernick to Gore on fourth-and-2 from their own 28, the 49ers looked primed to go in for the score.
San Francisco got down to the Seattle 18 and thought it had a winning play. Kaepernick snapped the ball with 30 seconds to go. He had Crabtree one-on-one with Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who the 49ers stayed away from for much of the game.
The ball may have been underthrown as Sherman deflected it to linebacker Malcolm Smith for the game-sealing interception.
Kaepernick said he felt good about the play.
“When I saw the matchup I thought we were going to score on that play,” Kaepernick said. He said he’d take that matchup “against anyone.”
Sherman, who insulted Crabtree after the game by calling him “sorry” and “mediocre,” said the choice to throw at him was “insane.”
Harbaugh and Kaepernick will surely stew over the final play for months. This was a winnable game for the 49ers, who saw an eight-game winning streak end Sunday. For the most part, the 49ers played winning football and handled the intense crowd noise well.
However, San Francisco made too many mistakes. All week, the 49ers said they had to play nearly perfect. They didn’t.
In addition to his final throw, Kaepernick fumbled and threw an interception on the 49ers’ two previous series. As he has done after losses in his young career, Kaepernick, who made several big throws and who ran for 130 yards on 11 carries, did not deflect blame.
"I didn't play good enough to win,” Kaepernick said. “I turned the ball over three times. I cost [us] this game."
The 49ers' defense was stout for much of the game, but it allowed Seattle to make too many big plays. Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch broke a 40-yard touchdown run and quarterback Russell Wilson hit receiver Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown passes on fourth-and-7 in the fourth quarter to give the Seahawks the lead for good.
Harbaugh kept a positive approach after seeing another season end short of the Lombardi Trophy.
“I thought our guys had tremendous fight,” Harbaugh said. “I think our guys are great football players.”
In the grand scheme, Harbaugh knows the future is bright. The 49ers are a young team that is run well. The past three years have not been an accident. They are an elite NFL team. Barring injuries, they will continue to have to championship opportunities. The next step is finishing.