SEATTLE -- After all that time bracing for the noise, the 49ers were hardly prepared for this silence.
In their solemn locker room, about the only noise was the clatter of equipment being packed away for the offseason. The 49ers' hopes of winning a Super Bowl ended just as they did a year ago, with their last, best hope vanishing in the right corner of the end zone.
The Seattle Seahawks held on 23-17 at CenturyLink Field, giving their famously loud fans -- and their notoriously brash-talking players -- one more thing to shout about.
Inside, most of the 49ers stared silently into their lockers. Eventually, Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis found his voice.
"I could sit up here and tell you what you want to hear. Tell you that I'm angry, that I'm mad. But I'm not going to do that," Willis said. "I'm going to look at you and say: 'You know what? It was a heck of a run.' "
And it was a heck of a finish. As in the Super Bowl a year ago, the 49ers had one last chance at a Montana-esque comeback -- only to have things go tantalizingly awry.
Last year, they took three cracks at receiver Michael Crabtree from near the goal line, only to come away empty-handed.
This time, it was Crabtree again -- but they had only one shot.
With 30 seconds left and the ball at the 18-yard line, and a record crowd at its full-throated best, Colin Kaepernick looked to his right and saw what he wanted: His favorite receiver lined up against a lone defensive back.
Never mind that the defender was Richard Sherman, the Seahawks' All-Pro cornerback and all-world trash-talker.
"Had a one-on-one match up with Crab," the quarterback shrugged. "I'll take that every time."
So Kaepernick let it fly, throwing the 49ers' season up for grabs. Crabtree had a shot at it, but Sherman got there first. With his outstretched hand, the former Stanford player tipped the ball to a grateful Malcolm Smith, who wrapped up the game-clinching interception as carefully as catching a baby.
"I thought it was a pretty darn, well-thrown ball," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "The way I was looking, an inch the other way, it was a touchdown pass. Give credit to the Seahawks. Richard Sherman made the play."
In the end, of course, there was more noise. In this stadium where decibels are a specialty, Sherman cranked up the volume by shouting into the TV cameras that Crabtree was a "sorry receiver." Sherman derided him several more times in his postgame news conference, clearly relishing his chance to rub it in.
Crabtree, informed of Sherman's critique, was unmoved: "I am not a TV guy. He is. I play ball."
After all, the 49ers had plenty of other things to worry about. Their star linebacker NaVorro Bowman, one of the game's most promising young talents, sustained what Harbaugh fears is a severe ACL injury.
Bowman's horrifically twisted knee came on a play in which he appeared to secure a Seahawks goal-line fumble with about 10 minutes to play. Instead, the 49ers lost Bowman -- and Seattle kept the ball.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, led three drives in the fourth quarter -- and turned the ball over each time: fumble, interception, interception. For a franchise spoiled by the last-second magic of Joe Montana, two consecutive seasons of last-minute heartbreak in the playoffs are hard to swallow.
Anquan Boldin stood up for his quarterback.
"I thought he played great all night," he said. "Obviously, we had the turnovers. I wish we could take those back. But other than that, he played a great game. He made plays outside the pocket with his legs. He made some great throws. He played a heck of a game."
Kaepernick's early sizzle included a 58-yard run, the longest of his career. He finished with 130 rushing yards, making him the first quarterback in NFL history to have a pair of 100-yard rushing games in his playoff career.
Those exploits helped the 49ers build a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, temporarily dampening a CenturyLink-record crowd of 68,454.
But as the Seahawks came roaring back, so did the vocal cords. Seattle took its first lead of the game with 13:44 to play in the fourth quarter when Jermaine Kearse hauled in a 35-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson.
From there, the 49ers kept waiting for a comeback that never would arrive. They continue something of a curse for Super Bowl losers: No runner-up has bounced back to win it all since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
The 49ers vow to aim high again next season. This time, they want to make some noise.
"We just stay optimistic," Willis said. "We fight. ... I have no reason not to think that next year will be our year. For as long as I've played the game, I always think, 'This will be our year.' "
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at Twitter.com/mercbrownie.