CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The momentum was slipping away from the 49ers early in the second quarter. The Panthers defense was as fearsome and disruptive as it had been in the teams' earlier meeting and their quarterback, Cam Newton, was decidedly better.
His perfectly placed 31-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith in the corner of the end zone erased San Francisco's 6-0 lead and sent the home crowd into a towel-waving frenzy.
But the 49ers had been there before. Just last week, in fact.
And as was the case in Green Bay, they absorbed their opponent's best shot and countered with a touchdown drive of their own just before halftime. They never trailed again in a methodical and decisive 23-10 victory that sets up an NFC Championship game in Seattle that the 49ers - and the rest of the league - has been looking forward to all season.
"You're very proud of your team when they do that - when you go out on the road and in the playoff game and beat another team that's a very good football team in their stadium," Jim Harbaugh said afterward. "Yes, it does make you feel like a strong, mighty man."
The late, second-quarter drive set the tone for the rest of the game.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who early on seemed just as rattled as he was in the Nov. 10 loss to the Panthers when he was sacked six times, connected with Anquan Boldin three times on the drive and Michael Crabtree once to get the 49ers to the edge of the goal line.
With the clock winding down, Kaepernick sprinted to his right and hit tight end Vernon Davis just before he went out of the side of the end zone. The officials initially ruled it an incompletion, but Davis said he'd been practicing his toe-tapping skills in the run-up to the game - with Frank Gore throwing him the ball - and knew the play would be overturned on replay.
"When I made that play, I ran to the sideline and coach (Harbaugh) was like, 'Vernon, did you make the catch?'" Davis said. "And I said, 'Coach, I'm confident that I made that catch. I'm telling you, it was in.' Because I just had a flashback to Frank throwing me that ball. And when I sat down on the bench I was like, my gosh that is the same exact catch that Frank was throwing me last week."
From there the 49ers defense and offensive line took over. The Panthers began the second half with a three-and-out series and, until last second drive when the game was out of reach, never got closer than the San Francisco 28-yard line.
The offensive line, meanwhile, was trampled by Carolina' talented and aggressive defensive front in the earlier meeting, a game in which the 49ers gained a season-low 151 yards. The unit got its payback in the second half as the 49ers went on clock-chewing drives of eight, 13 and nine plays. The back-breaking sequence came early in the fourth quarter with the 49ers facing third and 1 and the Panthers prepared for an up-the-middle run by Gore.
That's what they got. But the offensive line got a good push, guard Mike Iupati took out the inside linebacker and Gore cut through the hole on his way to a 39-yard gain that would set up Phil Dawson's third field goal of the game.
"We knew they were going to be good against the rush," guard Alex Boone said. "We just kept saying, 'Frank, just be patient. We're going to get you those yards,' and it worked out. Frank made a great cut, and that's who he is."
Said Harbaugh: "To pop it under those circumstances when you're playing against that many men in the box - Frank's got a way of doing that. There's nobody that does it better."
Gore finished with 84 of San Francisco's 126 ground yards. The running game also took the bite out of the Carolina pass rush, and Kaepernick wasn't sacked at all in the second half.
"That was one of my dreams this week and one of the things we challenged those guys to do" offensive coordinator Greg Roman said of the offensive line's dominance. " And I think they quietly went about their business all week. And the proof is in the pudding because they totally took that game over. And it was awesome. And that's not an easy group to do that against. We ran right at 'em."
-- Matt Barrows