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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Quarterback Colin Kaepernick snapped the 49ers out of their early morning malaise just in time to book a trip to Seattle for next weekend.
Kaepernick engineered touchdown drives on back-to-back possessions in the second and third quarters to send the 49ers to a 23-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers and into the NFC Championship game for a third consecutive season under coach Jim Harbaugh.
The 49ers advance out of the divisional round of the playoffs to face the top-seeded and host Seattle Seahawks at 3:30 p.m. next Sunday. A trip to Super Bowl XLVIII will be at stake when the heated NFC West rivals meet.
The 49ers turned things around near the end of the first half after a lackluster opening.
After an impressive drive at the end of the first half resulted in the 49ers’ first touchdown against the stout Carolina defense in 18 possessions this season, Kaepernick picked up where he left off on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Kaepernick kept the drive alive with a quarterback sneak on a third-and-1 play near midfield. Then, he hit wide receiver Anquan Boldin on a slant-and-go pattern for 45 yards. Kaepernick then took it into the end zone when he kept the ball on a read-option play. Boldin finished with 8 catches for 136 yards.
Kaepernick’s 4-yard touchdown run gave the 49ers a 20-10 lead. Upon entering the end zone, he mocked the “Superman” celebration of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Then, he pretended to zip up his shirt before he kissed his bicep – a celebratory act widely known as “Kaepernicking.”
Newton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. The 49ers traded up to select Kaepernick with the 36th choice.
Kaepernick has now won all three of his road playoff starts. The 49ers had only two road playoff wins in club history prior to last season. And the 49ers earned the right to face Seattle next week in what will be their biggest challenge, yet.
Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards with 1 touchdown and no interceptions. He rushed 8 times for 15 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Newton made his first postseason start. He compoleted 16 of 25 passes for 267 yards with 1 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He also rushed 10 times for 54 yards.
Safety Donte Whitner clinched the victory with an interception with 4:22 left in the game.
Two-minute drill: The 49ers took a 13-10 lead with five seconds remaining in the half during a crazy sequence of events to cap a 12-play, 80-yard drive.
Kaepernick’s third-down pass to Anquan Boldin from the 9-yard line was incomplete, but cornerback Drayton Florence was called for pass interference in the end zone to give the 49ers a first-and-goal situation.
Frank Gore was stopped at the Carolina 1-yard line, and the 49ers hurried to the line of scrimmage without calling their final timeout of the half. Kaepernick took the snap, rolled right and fired to tight end Vernon Davis.
Originally, Davis was ruled out of bounds. Harbaugh charged onto the field and referee Carl Cheffers penalized the 49ers for unsportsmanlike conduct. But the play warranted a booth challenge.
Cheffers declared that Davis had control of the ball, had one foot inbounds and dragged his left foot in the end zone to complete the catch for a 1-yard touchdown pass -- giving the 49ers a 13-10 lead at the half.
Goal-line stand: The 49ers’ defense appeared to make a major statement on the first play of the second quarter when linebacker Ahmad Brooks stopped Cam Newton on a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-goal play from the 1-yard line. One play earlier, the 49ers held fullback Mike Tobert out of the end zone from the 1.
When the 49ers took over, safety Quintin Mikell let a certain pick-six slip through his fingers on a Kaepernick pass. But neither the goal-line stand nor the lost interception/touchdown really mattered.
Ted Ginn returned Andy Lee’s punt 24 yards to set up Newton’s quick-strike 31-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith against tight coverage from Tarell Brown. The play gave the Panthers a 7-6 lead with 13:40 remaining in the first half.
Tukuafu injured: Will Tukuafu, the 49ers’ 293-pound fullback, sustained a left knee injury in the first quarter after recording his first career reception. At the end of his 2-yard reception, he sustained the injury as he bent awkwardly as he was tackled by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Tukuafu, who the 49ers signed late in the regular season to replace injured Bruce Miller, started Sunday’s game ahead of Anthony Dixon.
This ‘n’ that: Harbaugh’s grandfather, Joe Cipiti, passed away Sunday morning in Ohio. He was 98.
--After the 49ers took a 20-10 lead in the third quarter, the Panthers put together a drive into 49ers’ territory. But NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks responded with sacks on back-to-back plays for a combined loss of 15 yards to force a Panthers punt. . .
--Running back Frank Gore then kept the 49ers’ next drive alive with a 39-yard yard gain on a third-and-1 play. He finished with 84 yards on 17 carries. Phil Dawson kicked a 34-yard field goal to give the 49ers a 23-10 lead with 7:41 remaining.
--Wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who has been nursing a wrist injury, was shaken up on the second play of the game after catching a 1-yard pass and getting tackled by Munnerlyn. He missed three plays. Later, Crabtree served notice that he was all right when he reached high in the air to snag a 20-yard bullet from Kaepernick. . .
--Linebacker Patrick Willis recorded a first-quarter interception off a pass that deflected off the hand of receiver Brandon LaFell. The takeaway helped set up Dawson’s second field goal of the game. Dawson earlier made field goals of 49 and 33 yards as the 49ers took a 6-0 lead.
--In the first quarter, Munnerlyn was penalized 15 yards for a “head butt” against Crabtree after a play. Near the end of the first half, the Panthers reacted after Boldin did something similar and did not get flagged. . .
--The 49ers put together another goal-line stand in the second quarter after the Panthers had a first-and-goal situation at the 7-yard line. After Newton gained 6 yards on first down, Brooks had a sack. Brooks was then called for offside when he mistimed the snap and leaped over the Panthers offensive line. On third down, NaVorro Bowman stopped Tolbert for a 1-yard loss to set up a field goal that gave Carolina a 10-6 lead.