SEATTLE – Colin Kaepernick knew who to blame for Sunday's heartbreaking end to the San Francisco 49ers' season.
"I cost us the game," Kaepernick said. "We should have won."
Kaepernick looked to be on the verge of clinching a return trip to the Super Bowl as he led the 49ers down the field in the waning moments of the NFC championship game, only to throw a decisive interception that allowed the Seattle Seahawks to clinch a 23-17 victory.
The nature of the defeat made comparisons to last year's Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens inevitable. Just like that night, Kaepernick targeted receiver Michael Crabtree for the critical play of the game. A year ago, his pass to Crabtree was incomplete as the 49ers begged in vain for an interference call. This time, Kaepernick's pass was a shade underthrown, Richard Sherman leaped to tip it backward, and linebacker Malcolm Smith completed the interception.
"When I saw the matchup I thought we were going to score on that play," Kaepernick said. "I had a one-on-one matchup with Crab and I would take that every time, against anyone.
"I didn't play good enough to win. I turned the ball over three times. I could've put it a little deeper in the corner and given only Crab a chance."
Defying the roar of Seattle's Century Link Field crowd and the 12th man phenomenon, San Francisco surged into a 10-0 lead in the first half as Kaepernick used his speed and running ability to strong effect. He racked up 98 of his 130 rushing yards by halftime, by which time it seemed his mobility would be the telling factor between the teams.
However, when the Seahawks denied him running room and forced him to throw with greater regularity late, mistakes crept in, errors that would ultimately decide the contest. His three turnovers came on the 49ers' final three drives of the game. Kaepernick coughed up the ball after being sacked by Cliff Avril at 10:07 in the fourth and threw an interception into the grateful arms of Kam Chancellor on the 49ers' next possession.
On the final drive he took the team from its own 22 all the way to the Seattle 18-yard line, before his ill-fated attempt to Crabtree.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh refused to blame his QB and praised the 26-year-old's recovery from a slow start to the season. Defensive stalwart Patrick Willis also defended Kaepernick, insisting the team's culpability for the loss was collective.
Yet their well-meaning words won't ease the pain any as Kaepernick goes into a second straight offseason wondering what might have been. The 49ers have enough talent to make another title run, if only they can pick themselves up from this.
Fuel for those grueling offseason workouts may come with memories of Sherman, the Seahawks' chief agitator, putting his hands to his throat following the fateful last play, a gesture aimed at Kaepernick.
But only one thing will silence the doubts about his big game mentality that will be much-discussed in the coming weeks and months.
Getting back here, and making amends.