The 49ers kept the Panthers in check with a 23-10 win on Sunday afternoon. San Francisco advanced to the NFC Championship game for the third consecutive year under Jim Harbaugh and will play the Seattle Seahawks in CenturyLink Field next Sunday.
While the offense being held and limited for most of the first half, the offense awakened late in the second quarter. The biggest drive of the game came when the 49ers were trailing 10-6 after a Panthers field goal. Colin Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin four times for 40 yards combined on the possession.
After Michael Crabtree caught a 20-yard pass and the 49ers were in the red zone, Vernon Davis caught a short one-yard touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone with five seconds remaining in the second quarter. Both feet were in-bounds after the play was reviewed. It was his seventh career playoff touchdown in his seventh postseason game.
"[There is] no question about it [as] it was a real struggle," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "The Panthers front-seven, as much as we talked about rightfully so, is as good as it gets. It was a struggle, arm-wrestling kind of struggle. I thought our guys did well up front on defense [by] shutting them out in the second half."
After halftime, the Panthers were held to their first three-and-out of the game and the 49ers offense went off with a fury. Kaepernick was able to hit a wide open Anquan Boldin for 45 yards to get on the three-yard line. Two plays later, the 49ers quarterback kept it off the read-option and scored his first postseason touchdown since the Super Bowl.
Carolina had a possession that lasted 8 minutes long, but were unable to get points out of it when NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks had back to back sacks. The Panthers were initially in field goal range but were forced to punt after both sacks resulted in 16 yards lost.
San Francisco responded with a drive with a 7:52 duration that resulted in a field goal. The 49ers converted three third-downs on the drive before Carolina had the ball again. Cam Newton would go on to throw an interception which was caught by Donte Whitner which ended any hopes of a comeback.
"We had to come out and establish ourselves as a tough and physical team," Ray McDonald said. "We needed to put some points on the board and get stops on the defensive side. To [shut down] the Panthers offense, we did that."
The 49ers began the game with a 49-yard field goal by Phil Dawson thanks to a big 23-yard reception by Quinton Patton on third down. Defense contributed on the ensuing Panthers possession when Patrick Willis intercepted a ball off the hand of Brandon LaFell.
San Francisco would score again on a 33-yard field goal after the drive stalled with two incomplete passes.
Carolina was threatening when they got to the one-yard line, but the 49ers defense held strong, which included a fourth down stop. After the 49ers went three and out, Ted Ginn had a 28-yard punt return to bring the Panthers to the San Francisco 31-yard line. Steve Smith caught a perfect pass to Cam Newton on the next play for a touchdown as the Panthers took the lead at 7-6.
The 49ers defense got another goal line stand with two stops as the Panthers had the ball on the one yard line. This time, Carolina settled for a 24-yard field goal by Graham Gano rather than going for it.
Harbaugh was proud of how his team played on the road again. In the team's first back-to-back road wins for the first time in franchise history, he said the team will continue to be tougher.
"It was a great football game," Harbaugh said. "[It was] a physical struggle and I'm proud of our team for prevailing. When on the road in a playoff game, in their stadium, it makes you feel like a strong mighty man."
The 49ers will travel to Seattle to play the Seahawks with the NFC Championship on the line. Both teams split the regular season series with the home team winning each game.
"This is [the] game we wanted," Eric Reid said about playing the Seahawks. "They got us the first time, we got them the second time. [The] third time is the charm and hopefully we can get it the third time [we see them]."
-Jim Harbaugh is the first head coach since the 1970 merger to make the conference championship game in his first three seasons.
-The 49ers have won back to back playoff road wins for the first time in the same postseason.
-San Francisco is now 15-7 all-time in the NFL Divisional Playoff round.