(Reuters) - The Seattle Seahawks turned up the defensive heat on the San Francisco 49ers to win the National Football League's NFC Championship 23-17 on Sunday and earn a place in next month's Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos.
The Seahawks advanced to the NFL title game for the only the second time in their 37-year history, while their fellow top-seeded Broncos sealed their place with a 26-16 win over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.
Seattle battled back from a 17-10 deficit midway through the third quarter with 13 unanswered points, roared on by the raucous CenturyLink home fans as the NFL's top-rated defense registered three turnovers in the fourth quarter.
"We threw a tremendous night of defense out there," Seattle coach Pete Carroll told reporters. "We really played great "D", and we needed it down the stretch."
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, a coaching rival of Carroll's dating back to college football days, said it was a great battle.
"I think our guys had tremendous fight," said Harbaugh, whose team fell short of returning to the Super Bowl, where they fell last year 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens. "Congratulations to the Seattle Seahawks for moving on.
"It was a 15-round fight, right down to the last."
The final turnover snuffed out San Francisco's hopes as linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepted a pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the end zone that was tipped by cornerback Richard Sherman with 22 seconds left in the game.
The hard-hitting defensive struggle between the NFC West rivals saw each team gaining 308 yards.
Top-seeded Seattle went into intermission trailing 10-3 after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick rumbled 58 yards to set up the only touchdown of the first half, a one-yard plunge by Anthony Dixon.
The long-striding Kaepernick rushed for 130 yards on 11 carries in the hard-hitting contest that saw San Francisco starting guard Mike Iupati and All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman knocked out of the game with injuries.
The second half was marked by big plays with Seattle slowly turning the tide as the self-titled "League of Boom" defense caused a strip fumble of Kaepernick with a blind side pass rush, and intercepted an underthrown ball for another turnover.
"The turnovers are the biggest thing," said Kaepernick. "When you turn the ball over you don't give your team an opportunity to score.
"I feel like we should have won that game."
A 40-yard touchdown burst up the middle by Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch on Seattle's first possession of the second half tied it 10-10.
Kaepernick put the 49ers back in front 17-10 with a 26-yard, jump-throw strike to Anquan Boldin with 6:29 left in the third quarter, but that was last time San Francisco scored, as the Seahawks defense shut the Niners down.
A 69-yard kickoff return by Doug Baldwin set up a field goal for Seattle that cut the deficit to 17-13, and a gutsy fourth-and-seven pass from quarterback Russell Wilson found Jermaine Kearse in the end zone from 35 yards out to put Seattle in front 20-17 early in the fourth quarter.
A 47-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka with less than four minutes left completed the scoring as Seattle held off the last desperate drive by San Francisco.
Kaepernick and the Niners began their final drive at the 22-yard line.
A 17-yard pass to running back Frank Gore on a fourth-and-two from their own 30-yard line kept the drive alive and the 49ers pushed the ball to the Seattle 18 before Kaepernick's toss into the corner of the end zone was corralled by Smith.
Wilson completed 16-of-25 passes, including a 51-yard scrambling heave to Baldwin that set up a first-half field goal, for one touchdown and no interceptions.
Kaepernick connected on 14 of 24 passes for 153 yards, while primary running back Gore was shut down for 14 yards on 11 carries.
The NFL Championship Game will be played in New Jersey on February 2 in the first outdoor, winter weather Super Bowl.
(Reporting by Larry Fine, Edited by Peter Rutherford and Gene Cherry)