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As Fox analyst Mike Pereira, the former NFL vice president of officiating, put it to the Wall Street Journal: "They look at it and say, 'We may get called for one, but not 10.'"

Jim Harbaugh was onto it more than a year ago. After his team's 13-6 win at Candlestick Park in October 2012, the 49ers head coach was asked about his receivers being locked up by cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.

"I wouldn't use the words 'locked up,'" Harbaugh said. "There's another word I would use. But we'll take that up with the officials in New York."

Before the Seahawks played the New York Giants in Week 15 of this season, New York offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride went even further.

"From the moment the game starts until the moment the game ends, guys are going to be up in your face, grabbing you, holding you," Gilbride said. "If you think they're going to be called and expect that to be the solution to the problem, you're going to be sadly mistaken. They've perfected the art."

Seattle blanked the Giants 23-0.

It's not like the Seahawks jauntily avoid coverage-related flags. In fact, they had the most pass interference penalties in the NFL this season, 13, to go along with 10 defensive holding penalties. Some think that's part of their overall plan.

According to the Wall Street Journal, nine NFL teams committed 20 or more of those infractions in a single season since 2001. None of them had a losing record. The paper also noted that there has been about a 40-percent drop in postseason penalties since 2008, while regular-season penalties have increased 8.9 percent -#8212; suggesting that officials are even less likely to blow their whistles in the playoffs.

The Seahawks aren't about to apologize for their laying of hands.

"That's an old school brand of football," cornerback Richard Sherman told Seattle media this week. "I don't know how old the rules are, but since these rules have come, you look up and every receiver, every play they could drop a wide open pass and turn around and look for a flag. I think that kind of ruins the game. That kind of ruins the intensity, the whole DNA of football."

The 49ers are no doubt preparing for a rugged NFC Championship game at CenturyLink Field, but they weren't taking any complaints public this week.

"If you get called for it, it's holding. If not, it's not holding," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "So you just play football."

Gannon, who played 17 seasons as an NFL quarterback, believes the Seahawks' reputation is blown out of proportion.

"Look, they play physically," Gannon said. "The idea that it's a hold or a grab -#8212; if it's something away from the throw, the officials are not gonna throw (a flag). If you run a 10-yard curl route on the left and a guy is grabbing on the right side, the official is not gonna throw it. They don't want to stop the game. ... As long as it's consistent, I don't see the problem."

There's no questioning the Seattle secondary's dominance this year. Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas were first-team Associated Press all-pros, and strong safety Kam Chancellor made the second team. The other current starter at corner, Byron Maxwell, didn't take over until Week 13, but has been superb as a fill-in.

The Seahawks' defense led the NFL in total yards per game (273.6), passing yards per game (172.0), points allowed per game (14.4), interceptions (28) and opposing passer rating (63.4). In Seattle's final nine regular-season games, just one opponent eclipsed 200 yards passing.

"They're very good," Gannon said. "They've got a corner in Richard Sherman who's got great length, long arms, he's physical, has great confidence. They have two of the best safeties in the game, without question. It's their ability to play run support, to play at all levels, the physicalness. You look at that group, their swagger, their communication, I think it's the best secondary in football."

It's also one of the youngest -#8212; none of the four starters is older than 25 -#8212; and among the most overachieving. Thomas was a first-round draft choice, but Sherman and Chancellor were fifth-round picks, and Maxwell was a sixth-rounder. The guy he replaced, suspended Brandon Browner, was an undrafted free agent who played in Canada before finding his way to the NFL.

Perhaps because of these humble pedigrees, the friendship is as tight as the coverage among the Seahawks defensive backs. They vacation together in Miami and on Lake Chelan in Eastern Washington. They talk a lot of trash during games, get in receivers' faces at the line of scrimmage and generally come out on top.

Do they break the rules? Kevin Gilbride said they do, but Sherman doesn't take him seriously.

"I think we cover more than we hold," the cornerback said. "I think he's a guy that's a little bit bitter. His team didn't score any points in that game, so you find a way to explain that to save your job."

Gilbride has since retired from the NFL. Sherman and his athletic, aggressive, occasionally grabby cohorts? They're one win away from the Super Bowl.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.