Niners safety Donte Whitner picks off a Cam Newton pass to stave off a late Carolina comeback attempt. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Carolina Panthers had just driven 79 yards to the 49ers’ 1-yard line.
Holding a 7-6 second-quarter lead over a San Francisco team that was struggling offensively Sunday, the Panthers were on the verge of a touchdown and a dominating lead.
Instead, linebacker Ahmad Brooks brought down Panthers quarterback Cam Newtown for no gain. Then on third down, Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert was dropped by linebacker NaVorro Bowman for a loss of a yard, and Carolina had to settle for a field goal.
From then on, it was all 49ers.
Trailing 10-7, San Francisco put together a long touchdown drive to close out the first half, then another long TD drive to start the second half en route to a 23-10 victory over the No. 2-seeded Panthers in the divisional-round playoff game in Charlotte, N.C.
It was the 49ers’ eighth straight victory and earns them a rematch in Seattle this coming weekend in the NFC Championship Game. It will be the 49ers’ third straight trip to the NFC title game in their third year under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Sunday’s victory over the Panthers was timely revenge for a 10-9 loss to Carolina at Candlestick Park in early November. In that game, the Niners were held without a touchdown and couldn’t generate much offense against an active, aggressive Panthers defense.
This time, San Francisco’s offense came alive at the end of the first half, while its defense was the one that dominated.
After halftime, the Niners held Carolina scoreless, sacked Newton four times and didn’t allow the Panthers to get deep into 49ers territory until the final seconds of the game.
After throwing for just 91 yards in the first game against the Panthers, Colin Kaepernick threw for 196 and a TD this time, completing 15-of-28 passes. His touchdown pass, a 1-yarder to Vernon Davis just before halftime, culminated a 12-play, 80-yard march to give the 49ers a 13-10 lead.
Then, after the defense forced Carolina to go three-and-out on its first possession of the second half, San Francisco drove 77 yards on eight plays, eating up 4½ minutes, with Kaepernick scoring on a 4-yard keeper.
“We had to get settled down,” Kaepernick told Fox TV's Pam Oliver after the win. But the 49ers found their way on the long drive to take the lead.
“Once we got our rhythm, we started making plays,” said Kaepernick.
On defense, meanwhile, the linebacking trio of Bowman, Brooks and Patrick Willis was in on 28 tackles and helped hold Carolina to 93 yards on the ground. Overall, the Niners sacked Newton five times, and put much more pressure on him in the second half, once sacking Newtwon twice in a row to force Carolina out of field-goal range.
On that drive, Carolina had held the ball for nearly 8½ minutes, yet came away with no points.
Now, the No. 5 seeded 49ers – who lost to the Seahawks in Seattle, but then beat them in San Francisco – get one more opportunity against their division rivals.
“Onward,” Harbaugh told reporters. “We’ll take this and move on to the next round.”