The San Francisco 49ers weren't out for revenge, but they got some anyway.
With the goal of the Super Bowl still in their sights, they cleared Hurdle No. 2 Sunday, taking down the upstart Carolina Panthers by 13 points in a physical, chippy and emotional tilt 23-10. The home team, having played just one playoff game since 2006, was overmatched by the defending NFC Champions, who are the first team since 1977 to backup a Super Bowl appearance with a trip to the conference title game the next season.
The 49ers' defense stepped up and played it's second good game against the Panthers this year. In their defeat to the Panthers Nov. 10 back at Candlestick Park, they limited Cam Newton's team to just 10 points, as they did Sunday. But with the offense firing on nearly every cylinder late in the season, San Francisco was able to avenge that loss with another big road win and advance to the next round.
"We want to keep playing, that's what we want. That's what's in our hearts," Jim Harbaugh said. "(The players) came out and played like it."
It was a grueling, physical game that lived up to its initial forecast between two of the league's top-five defenses in most meaningful statistical categories. The 49ers pitched a shutout in the second half and forced two interceptions from Newton on the day, including a Donte Whitner's back-breaker in the fourth quarter that put the game out of reach.
"We knew coming that we were going to have to play our best defense," Patrick Willis said. "(Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio) kind of challenged us last night in our defensive meetings, saying, ‘I'm going to need the best defensive effort from y'all of the whole season.' We understood that those guys have had a good offense all year and we understood that we had to come out and play. Give everything that we have."
"The way our defense stood it's ground, especially in the second half," said Harbaugh. "That's mighty men stuff. Really proud of them."
Willis intercepted Newton on his first possession after a poor throw was tipped in the air by Brandon LaFell, leading to a 33-yard field goal that gave San Francisco the early 6-0 advantage.
On his second drive, Newton led the offense deep inside San Francisco's territory, but came up empty handed after failing to score on 4th-and-Goal from the 1. Cam Newton tried a quarterback sneak with Ahmad Brooks lined up in the A-gap - an area Willis and NaVorro Bowman usually occupy - and stuffed Newton turning the ball over to Colin Kaepernick and the offense.
There was a second goal-line stand early in the second quarter, where the Panthers had a 2nd-and-Goal from 1 but couldn't find pay dirt. Carolina tried a passing play that was stifled, taking a sack for no gain. Then they gave reliable goal line back Mike Tolbert a run on third down, but he tripped over his own lineman and was stuffed for a loss of a yard, forcing a 24-yard field goal from Graham Gano.
"We pride on keeping teams out the end zone. They're going to make big plays. They're NFL players too," Bowman said, after finishing tied with Willis for a game-high 11 tackles. "But we can hold up at the goal line four downs in a row. That lets you know that we're here to play and it's going to be a long day. Guys did a great job up front."
Keeping Carolina out of the end zone in those two instances potentially took 14 points off the board while San Francisco was still looking for it's first touchdown. The second quarter was being won by the Panthers, who took the 7-6 lead on Steve Smith's 31-yard touchdown reception when Newton lofted a perfectly place pass over the outstretched arms of Tarell Brown, who had good coverage on the play.
Momentum was shifting towards the home team after the 49ers had taken it early with two field goal drives on their first two possessions. But after Smith's score, Kaepernick and the offense answered immediately, just as they did twice in their Wild Card round win over Green Bay. Kaepernick orchestrated a 12-play, 80-yard drive at the end of the half culminating in Vernon Davis' touchdown in the back of the end zone that was initially called incomplete.
A steamed Harbaugh ran on to the field after the game clock continued to roll after the play was ruled incomplete and earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The play was reviewed and overturned, giving Davis the score and the 49ers a 13-10 lead, but Harbaugh's penalty was still enforced - albeit on the following kickoff as time expired and the teams went to their locker rooms.
"I was just trying to get somebody's attention to look at the scoreboard," said Harbaugh. "It was huge at the point to me, if that was incomplete, and we weren't going to have a touchdown there, for us to have another crack at another play and getting the touchdown, without the half expiring, we needed those seconds on there."
The impassioned coach had to be restrained on the sideline when veteran receiver Anquan Boldin took Harbaugh back to the sideline to ensure nothing more than a flag would come.
"In that moment, we just have to keep our heads. I head to grab him and told him, ‘don't cost us.' But he understood," Boldin said.
It was the second-straight week the 49ers had got a big performance from a receiver. Boldin finished with a game high eight receptions for 136 yards, including three receptions and drew a crucial pass interference penalty in the end zone on 3rd-and-Goal from the 9. Boldin backed up Michael Crabtree's clutch performance against the Packers when he racked up 125 yards, and said that showing might have helped him Sunday.
"Crab had a big game last week in Green Bay, guess they thought they were going to try to take him out of the game," said Boldin. "So that's the good part about our offense. We have weapons all around. You try to take one guy out, we still have two, three guys left that can make big plays. I think that was a result of it."
Kaepernick struggled in the first half against Carolina's top-tier defense, completing 11 of 24 for 121 yards with a touchdown. San Francisco struggled to get Frank Gore going, as he headed to the locker room averaging just 2.4 yards on seven carries.
But Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman flipped the script in the second half, dialing up just four passing plays and numerous misdirection runs that wore Carolina's talented defensive front down.
"We went in the half winning, so I was good," Gore said when asked if his first-half struggles caused frustration. "At this point in the year, you just want to win. We, as a team, we're willing to do whatever it takes to win. We had that feeling, we know how the Super Bowl feels, we didn't finish the way we wanted to but we got a chance to get back again. We're willing to do whatever it takes."
Gore finished with 89 yards on 17 carries highlighted by his 39-yard jaunt on a key 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter that set up Phil Dawson's 34-yard field goal to make it 23-10. It was his third make of the day, marking the third-straight game he's hit three field goals, including consecutive game-winners in Arizona and Green Bay.
Kaepernick made it a 20-10 game in the third with a four-yard touchdown run on a read-option play to the left. Instead of his customary kissing of the right bicep in celebration, he mockingly did Newton's Superman gesture before pretending to button up his shirt. Then came the bicep kiss.
"Just a little shout out," Kaepernick quipped afterwards. He finished completing 15 of 28 for 196 yards with a both a passing and rushing touchdown. He's now 4-1 in the playoffs, including 3-0 on the road since taking the starting job midway through last year.
Kaepernick, never one to forget any slights, likely remembered Panthers defenders doing his signature "Kaepernicking" during and after Nov. 10's game at Candlestick.
The touchdown was set up by a one of two passes to Boldin in the quarter. The 49ers recognized the Panthers' secondary was playing aggressively, and tried a double move on Captain Munnerlyn. Boldin faked a slant and ran upfield while Munnerlyn looked for safety help over the top that never came. It allowed Kaepernick to find his receiver for a 45-yard gain.
"I think that was the big one," Harbaugh said. "Their eyes were in the backfield and were looking to make the big play. We converted. Great throw by Kap, great run by Anquan."
From then on, San Francisco's defense forced Newton to play catch up. They got pressure up the middle when they needed it most, forcing back-to-back sacks while the Panthers were trying to answer Kaepernick's TD and make it a one-score game. Instead, Carolina's 13-play, 8:20 drive resulted in a punt and took any remaining wind out of its sails.
The 49ers finished with five sacks on the day, led by Ahmad Brooks' 2.5. It was his second-straight multi-sack performance after getting to Aaron Rodgers twice in Green Bay.
"As the game goes on, we wake up as a defense. We play even harder, we get stronger and I think we started understanding what they were doing later on in the game, playing to it and making plays," said Bowman.
San Francisco's win means they move on the NFC title game for the third-straight season. They are 1-1 in their last two, falling 20-17 to the New York Giants in overtime in 2011 and beating the Atlanta Falcons on the road last season 28-24.
They will head to Seattle to take on No. 1- seeded Seahawks, who beat the Saints 23-15 Saturday in a slippery contest at the raucous CenturyLink Field. The last two trips there haven't gone well for the 49ers, having been outscored 71-16 in sloppy performances. A win in their house of horrors ensures a second-straight trip to the Super Bowl, where they were five yards away from a championship in New Orleans last February.
"We're doing great things. Our organization's doing great things. Coach Harbaugh, our general manager, picking great players and we're going the right way," Gore said.
-With the win, Harbaugh became the first coach since 1970 merger to coach in three conference title games in each of his first three seasons.
-It marks the third time the 49ers have reached the title game in three-straight seasons (1988-90, 1992-94, 2011-13).
-Their 13 trips to the conference championship game since 1980 are the most in the NFL.
-With Anquan Boldin's 136-yard performance, the 49ers have had at least one 100-yard receiver in all seven playoff games under Jim Harbaugh.
-With his touchdown in the second quarter, Vernon Davis tied the NFL record for most touchdown receptions by a tight end in league history with 7. He's tied with former Raider Dave Caper.
With his 2.5 sacks, Ahmad Brooks is a sack away from tying Chales Haley for the franchise lead in postseason sacks (7.5).
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