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49ers dispatch Panthers, setting up long-awaited NFC title game

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Colin Kaepernick is now 3-0 in road playoff games, but he'll face a stiff test in Seattle during the NFC title game.

CHARLOTTE -- Colin Kaepernick always keeps it short and sweet and will never be known as a great quote. But in the dying hours of a sunny Sunday afternoon here, he managed to succinctly sum up what everyone was thinking: Of course it's San Francisco at Seattle next week for the NFC championship. The two best teams in the conference all season long, going head to head. As it was meant to be. The football gods aren't often generous, but every once in a while they give us exactly what we want.

"Yeah, I think we're the two teams everybody was looking at from the beginning,'' admitted Kaepernick, the 49ers' third-year quarterback, looking ahead to next Sunday's showdown of NFC West rivals. "It's going to be a knock-down, drag-out game.''

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In the happy but almost business-like San Francisco locker room, talk of top-seeded Seattle and the looming test ahead drowned out most of the chatter about the recently vanquished No. 2-seeded Carolina Panthers, who the 49ers drilled 23-10 in a tough and at times ultra-chippy divisional round playoff game at Bank of America Stadium. It felt as if the 49ers had just checked this very big game off their season to-do list, and had no hesitancy in looking ahead and beginning to face the demons that have tormented them at Seattle's CenturyLink Field the past two years.

San Francisco lost 29-3 there in Week 2 of this season, and 42-13 there in Week 16 of last season. The 49ers have won all four of the other meetings games against Seattle since the start of Jim Harbaugh's three-year coaching tenure in San Francisco. And now, here are the defending NFC champions again, facing the prospect of having to beat the Seahawks in the house they rarely lose in, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

"That's the way it's supposed to end,'' 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "We don't want it to end for us, but we understand we have to go up there in a hostile environment, against a really good football team, and do what a lot of people probably are not going to pick us to do. And that's OK. We understand what we have to do.''

This was a confident San Francisco team that dispatched the composure-less Panthers by scoring the game's final 17 points, and the 49ers have been doing what they have to do for an NFL-high eight weeks in a row now, going undefeated since falling to 6-4 with back-to-back losses against Carolina and New Orleans in Weeks 10-11. With a Week 17 win at red-hot Arizona, a wild-card round victory in the sub-zero wind chill of Green Bay and this week's coast-to-coast successful road trip to Charlotte, San Francisco might be as prepared as possible to face the challenges of The CLink, where the Seahawks are 16-1 since the start of 2012.

"We expect this,'' said Whitner, of the fifth-seeded 49ers becoming the first team in this year's playoffs to go 2-0. "We've been here. It's not our first time. We're not excited. We don't have [rapper] Flo Rida [the Panthers' halftime entertainment on Sunday] coming in and playing at halftime and all those different things. Because we expect to be here.

"I don't know if it was their Super Bowl or not, but it was another game to us. Until we get back to the Super Bowl and bring that trophy home, it's going to feel like just another game to us.''

The 49ers did indeed display greater playoff experience than the first-timers from Carolina in key junctures of the game. Panthers penalties gave the 49ers five first downs, but the tone-setting moments were obvious: Twice in the first half the Panthers drove down to the 49ers' 1-yard line, but San Francisco's defense stiffened both times, with linebacker Ahmad Brooks stuffing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on 4th-and-goal from the 1 on the first drive, and Carolina settling for a 24-yard Graham Gano field goal and a 10-6 lead on the second drive. In seven plays run inside the 49ers' 8-yard line, the Panthers gained a total of 10 yards.

"We pride ourselves on keeping teams out of the end zone,'' 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "When we can hold up at the goal line four downs in a row, that's just to let you know that we're here to play, and it's going to be a long day.''

The 49ers had taken Carolina's best couple shots in that sequence, and like the champions they are, steadied themselves and went back to work at turning the game to their advantage. San Francisco immediately launched a go-ahead 12-play, 80-yard drive after the Gano chip shot, with Kaepernick finding tight end Vernon Davis for a 1-yard replay-reversed touchdown pass with five seconds left in the first half.

"They're not in until they're in,'' Whitner said of the twin goal-line stands. "I do think the game turned on that. Those were two big stops, and you'd expect a good running team like that to get at least one of those two in the end zone. We felt a lot of the air go out [of the stadium at that point]. That's when we made up our mind that we're going to come out and enforce our will and win this football game, and we did.''

Whether or not the 49ers (14-4) can keep their road magic going into the NFC title game at Seattle (14-3) is the delicious topic we all get to chew on for the next seven days. Kaepernick improved to 3-0 in his career in road playoff games with the win over Carolina, but he's 0-2 as a starter in the loud and intimidating atmosphere that is CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks beat the visiting Saints 23-15 on Saturday in this weekend's other NFC divisional playoff, but Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense took virtually the entire second half off, with the second-year Seahawks quarterback throwing for a career-low 103 yards.

Seattle's offensive struggles have to give San Francisco's upset hopes a boost, as does the fact that the 49ers beat Seattle 19-17 at Candlestick Park in Week 14. More importantly, when San Francisco got blown out by 26 points on NBC's Sunday Night Football in Week 2, the 49ers offense was missing the injured Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree, leaving Seattle's defense to focus almost exclusively on veteran receiver Anquan Boldin.

On Sunday, Boldin gouged the Panthers (12-5) for a team-best eight catches for 136 yards, with Davis contributing his touchdown catch on his only reception of the day, and Crabtree being held to three grabs for 26 yards. Kaepernick played an efficient, turnover-free game, completing 15-of-28 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown, with 15 yards on eight rushes, including a game-clinching, 4-yard, third-quarter touchdown run.

After his touchdown, Kaepernick gave a hint of his team's burgeoning confidence level, dropping into a mock rendition of Newton's trademark "Superman revealed'' end-zone celebration. Later, he explained himself thusly: "Just a little shout out. I think you know [to whom].''

As chippy and spirited as the game against Carolina was, San Francisco will no doubt be in for more of the same -- and then some -- at Seattle. The two division rivals probably won't even wait for kickoff to start jawing at each other and lobbing shots at each through the media.

"I don't even look at it like the NFC Championship,'' Crabtree said. "We're looking at it like we're playing the Seattle Seahawks. We just got done with this game but I'm looking forward to the next one. It's going to be big. A lot of trash talking, lot of dirty stuff out there. But the most important thing is we're going to play football. Can't wait.''

Whitner certainly did nothing to quell the early hype for the game, which will be San Francisco's third consecutive trip to the NFC title game, making the 49ers' Harbaugh the first coach since the 1970 merger to manage that feat in his first three seasons on the job.

"I know next week will be [chippy],'' Whitner said. "They don't like us. We don't like them. And the ultimate goal of the Super Bowl is on the line. You'll see two physical football teams duke it out next week.''

The Seahawks and 49ers may not like each other, but football fans have to love the matchup we have on the table in the NFC. The NFC West foes are a combined 28-7 this season, split their two-game season series, and have had the league's best rivalry going for two years now. Even their coaches -- Harbaugh and Seattle's Pete Carroll -- have their history ("What's your deal?") of doing battle.

Asked if he was excited that it's all coming down to the 49ers and Seahawks in the NFC, even Harbaugh played along. "Sure, sure, why not?'' he said. "Our team's excited to have this chance, the ultimate chance. We'll be ready.''

So will we. What awaits next Sunday feels like it was meant to be all season long. Sometimes, lo and behold, the football gods deliver.

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