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Niners beat Panthers, reach another NFC title tilt

Jan 12, 2014 - 11:09 PM Charlotte, NC ( - Undeterred by the worst statistical game of his young career against the Carolina Panthers two months ago, Colin Kaepernick was efficient when he had to be.

The stout San Francisco 49ers defense did the rest.

Kaepernick threw one touchdown pass and ran for another score and the 49ers advanced to their third consecutive NFC Championship Game following a 23-10 victory over the Panthers on Sunday.

The fifth-seeded 49ers will face the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks at rowdy CenturyLink Field next Sunday for a chance to play in their second straight Super Bowl.

The bitter NFC West rivals split their season series.

"We're the two teams that everybody was looking at from the beginning," Kaepernick said. "It's going to be a knockout drag-out game."

Kaepernick completed 15-of-28 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. During San Francisco's 10-9 home loss to Carolina on Nov. 10, he was 11-of-22 for a season-low 91 yards with an interception, was sacked a career-high six times and rushed for just 16 yards.

The 49ers paired touchdowns at the end of the first half and beginning of the third quarter to jump out to a 20-10 lead. Their defense held the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton scoreless in the second half.

Anquan Boldin caught eight passes for 136 yards and Frank Gore carried the ball 17 times for 84 yards for San Francisco.

"It was a physical struggle," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I'm proud of our team for prevailing."

Newton was 16-of-25 for 267 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions and added 54 yards on the ground for the NFC South-champion Panthers, the No. 2 seed.

Steve Smith, who was a game-time decision with a PCL sprain in his left knee, had four receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown in the loss.

"They fought," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "Some things happened out there and we wish we would've kept our composure a bit better."

Carolina scored 10 straight points after San Francisco took a 6-0 lead. Graham Gano's 24-yard field goal staked the hosts a four-point advantage with 3:41 left until halftime.

Kaepernick had seven incompletions over his last nine passes until finally finding a rhythm on the final 49ers drive before the half. He gunned passes of 12 and 14 yards to Boldin to move the ball to the Carolina 49.

Michael Crabtree snatched Kaepernick's high throw for a 20-yard reception two plays later. A pass interference penalty on Carolina cornerback Drayton Florence put the ball at the 1 and Kaepernick rolled right and hit Vernon Davis in the back right corner of the end zone two snaps later to give San Francisco a 13-10 lead with five seconds left until the break.

The 49ers defense forced a three-and-out on Carolina's initial touch of the third and Kaepernick went back to work.

He fired a 16-yard strike to Boldin over the middle and hit him for 45 more yards when he ran past Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on a slant-and-go to put the ball at the 2.

Kaepernick kept it off the left side and plunged in for a 4-yard score on 2nd- and-goal to make it 20-10.

Newton then drove the Panthers to the San Francisco 29, but 49ers linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks sacked him for consecutive eight-yard losses to move them out of field-goal range.

The 49ers took the ensuing 7:58 off the clock, moving the ball 73 yards in 13 plays before Dawson booted through a 34-yard field goal to give San Francisco a 23-10 advantage at the midway point of the fourth quarter.

Newton moved Carolina down the field again, this time to the San Francisco 28, but safety Donte Whitner sealed the outcome with an interception.

Earlier, Dawson kicked a pair of field goals on the 49ers' first two touches to help them jump out to a 6-0 lead.

After going just 2-of-13 on third down in the first meeting against Carolina, San Francisco converted its first two before Dawson booted through a 49-yard field goal.

49ers linebacker Patrick Willis made a diving interception on Carolina's first possession when Newton's intended pass for Brandon LaFell over the middle was tipped into the air after glancing off his fingertips. The miscue led to a 33- yard Dawson field goal at the 4:33 mark of the first.

Smith hauled in a 28-yard reception on the first play of the Panthers' ensuing series and Newton drove them to the 1-yard line, but the 49ers stopped them on fourth down. Mike Tolbert was unable to plunge in from the one on third down and Brooks shot through the line to stuff Newton's sneak attempt.

Carolina's defense, though, forced a quick three-and-out and Newton lofted a perfect pass right onto the palms of a streaking Smith down the left sideline for a 31-yard score and a 7-6 Carolina edge early in the second.

Game Notes

San Francisco will be playing in its 15th conference championship game, tied for the most all-time with the Pittsburgh Steelers ... Davis' TD catch was his seventh in the postseason, which tied him with Dave Casper for the most by a tight end ... The 49ers were 6-of-14 on third down ... Former 49er Ted Ginn Jr. caught four passes for 104 yards.