Programming note: Watch Monday’s 49ers press conference with Jim Harbaugh live on CSN Bay Area and streaming live right here at 12 p.m.
What you need to know: The hottest team in the NFL did not appear to be completely thawed out from its wild-card weekend victory in frigid Green Bay a week earlier.
But momentum switched in a hurry just before the end of the half on Sunday, and the 49ers heated up and rolled into the NFC Championship game with a convincing 23-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C.
And, now, the game that folks in San Francisco and Seattle have been anticipating since the beginning of the season is upon us. The 49ers earned a trip to face the NFC West-champion and top-seeded Seahawks on Sunday for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
In their past two trips to Seattle with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, the 49ers were outscored 71-16. But they enter the season’s rubber match with an eight-game winning streak -- matching the longest string of victories in coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as coach.
“That’s in the past,” Kaepernick said of the recent unsuccessful trips to Seattle. “This is a different situation. We have to go out there and win it.”
Before Kaepernick’s arrival on the scene, the 49ers had won just two postseason road games in franchise history. Against Carolina, Kaepernick became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to win his first three road starts in the playoffs.
“Much like playing a round of basketball, winners stay and play,” said Harbaugh, who became the first coach since the merger in 1970 to lead his team to the conference championship game in each of his first three seasons.
“What are you willing to do to stay out there on the floor and stay in the tournament? I thought our team did enough to stay.”
The 49ers appeared sluggish through most of the first half. The key sequence in the game was provided by the defense that kept the Panthers out of the end zone after a second-and-goal situation from the 1.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks sacked Carolina quarterback Cam Newton for no gain. Then, All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman stopped fullback Mike Tolbert for a 1-yard loss to force a field goal that extended the Panthers’ lead to 10-6.
The 49ers offense, which had been held out of the end zone in 17 previous possessions this season against Carolina, responded with their own game-changing drive. On a second-and-goal play from the 1, Kaepernick rolled right and found tight end Vernon Davis in the corner of the end zone.
The play was originally ruled out of bounds, but referee Carl Cheffers reversed the call after the replay assistant called for a review.
“It was a big momentum swing,” Kaepernick said. “I think coming out for the second half we were confident with what we were doing. We were confident that we could run the ball and make plays.”
The defense held the Panthers to a three-and-out, and the 49ers extended their lead to 20-10 on Kaepernick’s 4-yard keeper on a read-option play. Receiver Anquan Boldin provided a big play to set up the touchdown when he shook free for a 45-yard completion on a slant-and-go pattern.
Then, it was up to the defense for one more back-breaking sequence of plays.
[RELATED: 49ers defense makes a stand]
Carolina was threatening to make it a one-score game by converting three third-down plays. But the 49ers snuffed out the scoring chance on back-to-back sacks from Bowman and Brooks.
“That was disappointing because we did such a nice job of getting the ball down into field-goal range,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
Boldin statement: Michael Crabtree might have the greatest hands Harbaugh has ever seen, as the 49ers’ coach reiterated last week. But Anquan Boldin isn’t too shabby, either.
When asked about Boldin’s hands, Harbaugh said, “As good as anybody that’s ever played the game. Strong. He’s an amazing competitor.”
With the Panthers paying a lot of attention to Crabtree, who did not play in the earlier meeting between the teams, Boldin had a game-high eight receptions for 136 yards for his fourth career 100-yard receiving game in the postseason.
Remarkably, the 49ers have had at least 100-yard receiver in each of their seven postseason games under Harbaugh. In Super Bowl XLVII, both Michael Crabtree (109) and Davis (104) eclipsed 100 yards. And Boldin had six catches for 104 yards for the winning Baltimore Ravens in that game, too.
Super shout-out: Upon crossing the goal line on his 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Kaepernick mocked – or paid homage – to Newton with his own version of the Newton’s Superman pose. He then performed the act known as “Kaepernicking” of kissing the tattoos on his upper arm.
[RELATED: D-line rotation key in win]
“Just a little shout-out,” Kaepernick said of the touchdown celebration.
“I think you know the answer,” he said.
The 49ers traded up to select Kaepernick with the No. 36 overall draft pick in 2011. In that same draft, Newton was the first overall selection of the Panthers.
“I still won’t forget it,” Kaepernick said.
Gore’s premonition: For the second week in a row, running back Frank Gore best contribution to the victory might have been without the ball in his hands. Against the Packers, Gore made a couple of key blocks to spring Kaepernick for big runs.
On Sunday, his work during the week with Davis paid off.
Davis said he works on catching balls and getting his feet inbounds at the sideline. Usually he catches passes from assistant trainer Nate Breske in his free time. But last week, Gore came forward to lend some assistance.
“He came to me and said, ‘This is the catch we need,’” Davis said after his 1-yard touchdown at the sideline in the end zone proved to be a momentum-changing play. The play was originally ruled out of bounds. It was reversed upon review.
“It kind of blew my mind because when I made that play, I went to the sideline and coach asked, ‘Vernon, did you make the catch?” Davis said. “And I said, ‘Coach, I’m confident I made that catch. I’m telling you, I was in.’”
Gore also added a game-high 84 yards on 17 carries, including a 39-yard run on a third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter. He is the second all-time rusher in 49ers postseason history with 632 yards. Roger Craig is the 49ers’ postseason leader with 817 yards.
[RELATED: Gore worked with Davis on his nifty footwork]
Injury concerns: Crabtree sustained a right shoulder injury on the second play of the game and missed three snaps after Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn slammed him down after a 1-yard gain. No penalty was called on the play.
“I feel like it was unnecessary, but it’s cool,” Crabtree said. “I stopped after the play, and the dude kept going. I stopped, and he slammed me on my head anyway. OK, that’s what type of game it’s going to be.”
Crabtree appeared to be impacted throughout the game by the injury, but he still came up with a leaping 20-yard reception on the 49ers’ touchdown drive before the end of the first half.
“I’m not hurt,” Crabtree said. “I’m just playing ball.”
Starting fullback Will Tukuafu sustained a left knee sprain on the first series of the game when his leg bent awkwardly after a tackle from Munnerlyn. He did not return, and his status for next week’s game is in question.
The injury is similar to the MCL sprain that left tackle Joe Staley sustained on Dec. 1 against the St. Louis Rams, a source told CSNBayArea.com. Staley did not return to action and was expected to miss a game. However, he returned to action the following week.
Tukuafu was signed on Dec. 18 to replace fullback Bruce Miller, who was lost for the season due to a broken shoulder blade. Anthony Dixon played fullback for the remainder of Sunday’s game.
--Harbaugh’s grandfather, Joe Cipiti, passed away Sunday morning in Ohio. Cipiti was on hand to see his grandsons coach against each other in Super Bowl XLVII. He had also visited the 49ers’ practice facility in Santa Clara. He was 98. “I know he’s looking down and smiling,” Harbaugh said after the 49ers’ victory.
--Davis recorded just one catch for 1 yard, but it was a big one. The touchdown was Davis’ seventh career postseason score, tying him for Raiders Hall of Famer Dave Casper for the most receiving touchdowns in the postseason from a tight end.
--Brooks’ 2 1Ž2 sacks gives him 6 1Ž2 postseasons sacks in his career, which moves him into tie for second with Dwaine Board and Tim Harris in 49ers history. Charles Haley recorded 8.5 sacks.
--The 49ers appeared to get away with 12 men in the huddle after achieving a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the first half. Referee Carl Cheffers said he was in the process of announcing 49ers linemen Adam Snyder and Daniel Kilgore as eligible receivers as tight end Vance McDonald ran out of the huddle. “The ball was not in play, yet,” Cheffers told a pool reporter. “That’s why I didn’t call the foul on the play.”
Replays showed that shortly after Cheffers signaled the ball was in play, McDonald exited the huddle. The 49ers avoided a 5-yard penalty, and two plays later scored on Davis’ 1-yard pass from Kaepernick.
--Harbaugh was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct after charging onto the field to complain about the clock not stopping after Kaepernick’s pass to Davis that was originally ruled incomplete before being reversed on review. Boldin went over to Harbaugh and told him, “Coach, we can’t have that. Get off the field.” Said Harbaugh, “He was right.”
--With 23 seconds remaining, 49ers punter Andy Lee attempted to throw a pass to uncovered wideout Kassim Osgood as the Panthers left him uncovered as they planned to block the kick. Lee’s pass short-hopped Osgood for an incompletion. “We had that in our arsenal and we told Andy to throw it,” Harbaugh said. “He throws it a lot better in practice. I can guarantee he throws it a lot better in practice.”
Quote of the day: “When you go out on the road and in a playoff game and beat another team that’s a very good football team in their stadium, it does make you feel like a strong, manly man.”
--49ers coach Jim Harbaugh
Looking ahead: Just as many people thought, the NFC Championship will come down to division rivals San Francisco and Seattle. The teams have split the previous four games, with each team winning on their home turf. The 49ers last won in Seattle late in the 2011 season.
“We have to go to Seattle,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said. “We know it’s going to be a dog fight. But we are built for this.”
The Seahawks hold one of the largest home-field advantages in the NFL, but showed some vulnerability in a 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 22. The Seahawks advanced to the NFC title game with a 23-15 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Saturday.
“We understand that we have to go up there in a hostile environment with a really good football team and do what a lot of people probably aren’t going to pick us to do,” said 49ers safety Donte Whitner, who clinched Sunday’s win with an interception 4:22 remaining. “That’s OK with us. We understand what we have to do.”