CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In his second season as a starter, Colin Kaepernick improved to 3-0 in road playoff games, but it will take a successful journey to the most hostile environment in the NFL for the 49ers to repeat as NFC champions.
The 49ers toppled the host Carolina Panthers, 23-10, Sunday, taking over the game on two Kaepernick touchdowns, one a throw and one a run, sandwiched around halftime. San Francisco advanced to the NFC championship game Sunday in Seattle, where the 49ers have been blown out the last two seasons. It is the third consecutive year the 49ers have reached the conference title game.
Kaepernick mimicked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's "Superman" move after a four-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
"Just a little shoutout," Kaepernick said.
He will need to be close to a superhero for the 49ers to reach the Super Bowl. They will have to win road playoff games in three time zones, and the next test is by far the most difficult as the Seahawks are 16-1 at home over the last two seasons, including the postseason.
"I don't think it really matters where," 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith said. "This is a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Media will love it and break it down, dissect it. But we really don't care. It wouldn't matter if it was there or at our place. Shoot, we've got two more games to go to have a ring."
Coach Jim Harbaugh, who is 41-13-1 in three seasons, including the postseason, wasn't fazed by the task ahead.
"Mr. Al Davis said so profoundly, 'Just win, baby,' " Harbaugh said. "Onward."
The fifth-seeded 49ers took advantage of a slew of first-half calls that went their way in defeating the NFC South champion Panthers.
The Seahawks beat the 49ers, 29-3, in Week 2 and the year before, 42-13. But the 49ers have proved capable of defeating the Seahawks in San Francisco and their defense is much healthier than it was a year ago when they reached the Super Bowl.
Kaepernick wasn't perfect, but he didn't make any big mistakes. He completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards.
The 49ers took the lead, 13-10, with five seconds remaining in the second quarter on a one-yard pass to tight end Vernon Davis. It wasn't ruled complete until a booth review that was initiated after Harbaugh was penalized for being far out on the field complaining to officials. Replays showed Davis dragging his feet in the corner of the end zone.
It started a string of 17 consecutive points as the 49ers scored on their first possession of the third quarter when Kaepernick hit Anquan Boldin (eight receptions, 136 yards) for a 45-yard gain and then scored on a run around left end.
"It was a big momentum swing," Kaepernick said. "Coming out for the second half, we were confident."
Newton was sharp in the first half, throwing a 31-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass to Steve Smith, but he could not stay on a roll and the Panthers left points on the field when they failed to punch the ball in at the goal line.
Coach Ron Rivera rolled the dice on fourth and goal and lost with his team trailing, 6-0, on field goals by Phil Dawson. Newton was stuffed on a sneak from the one. Even though Newton was turned back, the call didn't hurt the Panthers, who forced the 49ers to punt after three plays. Newton's touchdown pass to Smith came on the next play.
The Panthers then had an 8-minute 59-second drive end with a 24-yard field goal by Graham Gano after they failed on two more snaps from the one. The field goal gave the Panthers a 10-6 lead, but the 49ers drove the length of the field to go back ahead on Davis' touchdown. Newton (16 for 25 for 267 yards; 54 yards rushing) had a pass intercepted by Donte Whitner with 4:22 remaining. Patrick Willis intercepted a pass by Newton in the first quarter.
"It's hard as a person, hard as a man when you put so much into it and you don't get the production you want out of it," Newton said. "This is a terrible ending to a great season."
Rivera's job was on the line early in the season after a 1-3 start.
"We became a football team this year," Rivera said. "This game was not indicative of what this season was about."Copyright © 2015, RedEye