CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Week 17 win against a very good defense in Arizona. The bad-weather game in Green Bay last week. Sunday's victory over a Panthers team that roughed them up in November.
All of it has been a perfect warm up, safety Donte Whitner said, for what awaits the 49ers on Sunday: the rubber-match game with their arch rivals, the Seattle Seahawks.
"We don't want it to end for us," said Whitner, who clinched Sunday's win with a fourth-quarter interception. "We understand that we have to go up there in a hostile environment with a really good football team and do what a lot of people probably aren't going to pick us to do. That's OK with us. We understand what we have to do."
Whitner and other 49ers have been anticipating a championship-game encounter in Seattle for months, some as far back as the 29-3 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 2. The 49ers have been blown out there in two straight times, and Colin Kaepernick has has had some of his worst games at CenturyLink Field, throwing four interceptions to one touchdown in two games there. The 49ers won the rematch at Candlestick Park last month, 19-17.
"That's in the past," Kaepernick said Sunday. "This is a different situation. We have to go out there and win it."
The Seahawks have been nearly invincible at home over the last two seasons, losing only one game there in that span. Seattle this year took the NFC west title, which the 49ers had won the previous two seasons, and they have the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. They advanced to the NFC Championship game with a 23-15 victory over the Saints on Saturday.
Other 49ers agreed with Whitner that Sunday's 23-10 win against the Panthers was an excellent precursor for what's in store in Seattle. Like the Seahawks, the Panthers have an excellent defense and they tried to intimidate and disrupt the 49ers throughout the game.
The 49ers, however, didn't bite. The Panthers ended up being penalized eight times for 73 yards, including two big penalties in the first quarter that aided 49ers' scoring drives.
"This was one of those games - you know it's going to be physical, you know it's going to be tough. You just have to be tougher," guard Alex Boone said. "... We're going to have to do that next week. We've got to go in knowing it's going to be hostile, it's going to be tougher."
Before the season even began, the 49ers and Seahawks were considered the top two teams in the NFL. The 49ers players said it was appropriate that the NFC title comes down to them and their bitter rival.
"Long story short, man, they know us and we know them," said linebacker NaVorro Bowman. "We've got to go there and we all know the history, but this is (for) the Super Bowl, man. Everything is on the line. That just says it all. And we're ready."
-- Matt Barrows