The NFC goes through Santa Clara.
With their last-second 26-21 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night, the San Francisco 49ers clinched their first NFC West title since 2012 and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
At 13-3, the Niners will rest on Wild Card Weekend, alongside the No. 2 seed Green Bay Packers (13-3), while the fifth-seeded Seahawks (11-5) travel to Philadelphia to take on the NFC East champion Eagles (9-7). Elsewhere in the NFC, the third-seeded New Orleans Saints (13-3) will host the sixth-seeded Minnesota Vikings (10-6) next weekend.
If not for a stirring Seahawks second-half comeback and a wild goal-line stand at the end of the game, however, San Francisco would be the side traveling to the City of Brotherly Love, not Seattle.
Entering the second half with a 13-0 lead, the 49ers surrendered three straight touchdown drives to Seattle before handing the Seahawks the ball up 26-21 with 2:27 to go. Seattle then embarked on a 15-play, 76-yard drive down to San Francisco's goal line-slash-one-inch line, culminating in a series of events that could have far-reaching impact on the NFC postseason.
After trading timeouts with San Francisco, Seattle was faced with a fourth-and-10 from its own 12-yard line. Russell Wilson completed a pass to rookie receiver John Ursua right at the one-yard line in-bounds. The Seahawks hustled to the line of scrimmage and Wilson spiked the ball with 22 seconds left.
With four receivers and a tight end in their personnel and tackle George Fant hobbled, the Seahawks attempted to sub out players for a back-heavy set, but Seattle lost track of time and had to take a delay of game penalty, pushing the 'Hawks back to a second-and-5 instead of a second-and-1, which, with Marshawn Lynch in tow, would have been a sure thing.
"We just didn't function well enough. That's me all the way. There's nobody else to turn to," Carroll explained after the game. "The mentality of kill the clock, sometimes it happens, we've talked about it numbers of times, you kind of take a pause like it's a timeout which it wasn't. That may have been a little bit of what happened on the sidelines with the guys running over. It's just didn't work out right."
That delay was followed by a second-down incompletion in the direction of Tyler Lockett and then a third-down incompletion toward tight end Jacob Hollister, who looked to be smothered by 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, who had his back turned to Wilson.
No flag was thrown for defensive pass interference and the officiating department in New York did not call for a booth review. Carroll did not object to the call not being reviewed, as he had not seen a replay.
"I just saw it live in color. I didn't see the replay," the Seahawks coach said. "Everybody else has an opinion. You guys know more than I do. I did not see the replays on that one."
League officiating officials did though. NFL senior VP of officiating Al Riveron said in a pool report after the game that the league "did review" the play but "didn't see enough to stop the game."
"What we see is, we see the offensive player come in and initiate contact on the defensive player -- nothing that rises to the level of a foul which significantly hinders the defender, nothing that is clear and obvious through visual evidence, which hinders the defender," Riveron said. "The defender then braces himself. And there is contact then by the defender on the receiver. Again, nothing which rises to the level of a foul based on visual evidence."
On fourth-and-5, with the game, the division and conference supremacy on the line, Wilson attempted a pass to Hollister again, this time right on the goal line. The tight end caught the ball, was hit by linebacker Dre Greenlaw and pulled back by Warner. The ball looked to be jarred loose, but upon replay, Hollister was ruled down by contact just inches in front of the goal line.
"I just knew that I had my foot on the goal line and that they had to get in the end zone in order to score, in order to win the game," Greenlaw said of his instant-classic goal-line stuff. "So I just made sure I kept my feet on the goal line and just played lateral to downhill and just made a tackle that my coaches and teammates would be proud of."
San Francisco ran out the remaining nine seconds with a QB sneak on the ensuing play and celebrated a division title on Seattle's turf.
"It's as close as it can get," Carroll said. "Sorry to the fans that we weren't able to get that other inch. That's what it was. ... It's amazing, the regular season, I don't know if we could ask for much more drama."
"We've had to win a lot of different ways this year," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. "I keep feeling like we've done it every way possible and then we find a new way to do it. I wish it wouldn't have been that close at the end, but it doesn't matter now."
The Niners' Divisional Round game two weekends from now will be the franchise's first postseason game held at Levi's Stadium, which opened in 2015. But it is not the first postseason game played at the location; Levi's played host to Super Bowl 50 in Feb. 2016.
Just last season, San Francisco exited Week 17 with a meager 4-12 record and the No. 2 pick in the draft. Flash forward to Sunday night, and the Niners are at the top of the NFC mountain with a conference-best record and home-field advantage with much still left to climb.
"We were going to be ready to deal with whatever we had to tomorrow, if we had to go play three games," Shanahan told reporters. "I know that we are much happier now that we can stay home now and we are two games away from the big one."