EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The luckiest people were those stuck in Secaucus.

At a train station there, thousands of Super Bowl ticket buyers were bottlenecked for hours Sunday because they overloaded the system en route to the game. Some arrived late. Some reportedly turned around and went home.

The last group didn't miss much of a contest. And both groups had it much better than Peyton Manning, the vaunted Denver Broncos quarterback, who showed up on time at MetLife Stadium with his teammates and proceeded to endure a 43-8 defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, one of the worst beatings in NFL title game history. No one saw it coming.

Wait, check that. The Seahawks did.

"We knew what we had in the locker room," said Seattle receiver Percy Harvin. "We always said the game didn't have to be close. It might have sounded crazy to those outside. But it wasn't crazy to us. We had tremendous confidence in our defense. And this team was hungry."

Here's who else knew exactly how good the Seahawks were: The San Francisco 49ers of Santa Clara. For both the team and its followers back in the Bay Area, Sunday's Seattle romp was definitely a bowl of mixed-emotion soup.

On one hand, the result was somewhat encouraging. Because it essentially proved that the 49ers -- who barely lost to the Seahawks two weeks earlier in the NFC title game -- were the second best team in pro football this season.


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On the other hand, the result was profoundly discouraging. Because it conclusively proved that the NFL's best team resides in the 49ers' division, the NFC West. And the Seahawks will not magically get worse next season. They plan to retain their dominance.

"Absolutely," said Harvin. "We're a young team. We're going to stay hungry. We love to compete."

But here's the real question 49ers fans want answered: Was it harder this season for the Seahawks to win their division or win the Super Bowl?

"I won't go into that," Harvin said, with a slight smile.

He knows the truth. It's likely that when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick watched Sunday's proceedings, he was thinking very hard about the last pass he threw in that NFC title game -- the one that could have been a winning touchdown but was slightly underthrown and intercepted.

Hypotheticals are dangerous. But if Kaepernick had executed that first down play better and thrown the ball a foot farther -- resulting in either a TD or an incomplete pass, setting up three more chances for a score -- the 49ers would surely have been lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy into the swampy New Jersey air.

Seattle's players all but admitted that themselves. More than one either said outright or implied that once they beat the 49ers, the task ahead of them became much easier -- even with Manning, a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback, across the line of scrimmage. Kaepernick's ability to break off long runs gave Seattle problems. The slow 37-year-old Manning wasn't capable of that.

"If you look back on the NFC Championship, Kaepernick hurt us with his legs," said defensive lineman Brandon Mebane. "We knew Manning couldn't run. But he had a very good arm. We just needed to work on that, make him hold the ball and wait."

The formula wasn't complicated. If Seattle's top-tier defensive backs could stick with Denver's receivers for the first few seconds after the snap, Manning couldn't throw to them. And the Seahawks' pass rushers, also excellent, could do the rest -- even if they only sacked Manning once.

"We didn't talk about the size of hits against him," said Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. "We talked about, can we get him off the spot? We knew that in certain coverages, there would be times when he could get the ball out under 2.2 seconds, which is hard for a rusher. If it's 2.6 seconds or 2.7 seconds, that's when you can get to him."

Manning was plainly concerned about those extra tenths of a second, even on the game's first play. After two weeks of practice, Manning lined up behind the line, took one look at how the Seahawks were lined up, then moved toward the line of scrimmage and barked out some signals to change the play.

Bad move. Because of noise from the geeked-up crowd, Broncos center Manny Ramirez couldn't hear Manning well and thought he was calling for a snap -- and so Ramirez sent the ball over Manning's head into the end zone, where a teammate fell on it, resulting in a safety.

Thus began the downhill slide of Manning's very bad evening. When the Seahawks then scored on their first three offensive drives, the game was effectively over. Manning was twice intercepted, and even though he completed 34 passes, a Super Bowl record, the numbers were meaningless wallpaper. Whenever the Seahawks gave Manning open space, they took it away instantly and prevented any big plays.

"We knew they had a good defense," Manning said of the Seahawks. "We knew they were fast. It was still a matter of us doing our jobs better. We just didn't do that tonight."

Yes, the Broncos led the NFL in offense this season. But in retrospect it's easy to see that the AFC side of the league was simply much weaker than the NFC side.

"We loved hearing about Denver's offense," said Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner. "Because we knew that after the game, we were going to hear about Seattle's defense."

Can that defense somehow be overcome by the 49ers during the 2014 regular season? They did it once during the 2013 regular season. They came closer to doing it in the 2013 playoffs than any other team.

But so what? On Sunday night, with Seattle proving positively that it is driving the NFL train, the rest of the league might as well have been the caboose. In Secaucus or anywhere else.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.