(Reuters) - The red-hot San Francisco 49ers beat the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers 23-10 in a bruising battle on Sunday to advance to the NFC Championship game for the third year in a row.
The victory, the eighth in a row for the 49ers, sends San Francisco to top-seeded Seattle, their NFC West rivals, for the title game next Sunday with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl.
The wild card 49ers overcame a 10-6 deficit in the hard-hitting contest with a one-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Colin Kaepernick to tight end Vernon Davis 14 seconds before intermission for a 13-10 lead.
Davis was initially ruled out of bounds before the on-field call was reversed after a video review.
San Francisco scored again after a 77-yard drive on their first possession of the second half to build a 10-point cushion as Kaepernick ran in from four yards out after setting up the score with a 45-yard strike to Anquan Boldin.
The fierce San Francisco defense kept Carolina out of the end zone four times from the one-yard line in the first half, at the end of two separate drives, with the home-standing Panthers only able to score three points from those TD opportunities.
“It was a great football game,” said Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, who steered his team into the Super Bowl last year. “It was a physical struggle. I‘m proud of our team for prevailing.”
The game was marked by big hits and confrontational jawing between the players. Four times in the first half the 49ers earned first downs on Carolina penalties.
Following the first 30 minutes, San Francisco took charge and shut down the Panthers.
“When you go on the road in a playoff game and beat another good team in their stadium, it makes you feel like a strong, mighty man,” said Harbaugh, the first coach in the Super Bowl era to reach the conference finals in his first three seasons.
Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards, hitting Boldin eight times for 136 yards.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton connected on 16 of 25 throws for 267 yards, including a 31-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass to Steve Smith, and two interceptions.
Newton, who also rushed for 54 yards on 10 carries, was sharp in the opening half but after the break was harassed by a furious 49ers pass rush, which totaled five sacks in the game.
Carolina had seized control after falling behind 6-0 on a pair of first-quarter field goals by Phil Dawson, but Kaepernick began finding the range with his throws as he directed San Francisco on a 12-play, 80-yard drive to end the half.
“It was a big momentum swing,” Kaepernick said. “When we came out in the second half, we were confident we could run the ball and make plays.”
Niners running back Frank Gore, who was held to 17 yards in the first half, rushed for 67 yards in the second half for 84 yards on 17 carries.
A big defensive turning point came late in the third quarter when Carolina responded to Kaepernick’s TD run by driving to a first-and-10 at the San Francisco 29.
With the Panthers threatening to claw their way back, back-to-back sacks by linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks pushed Carolina out of field goal range.
”They executed. They played great,“ said Newton, who was playing in his first postseason game. ”Playoffs is a different speed than the regular season. I learned that today.
“You have to seize the moment when the moment allows. We had too many opportunities that we let slip through our hands and that was the story of the day.”
The victory set up a third meeting this season between the 49ers and Seahawks, who at 13-3 finished one game better than San Francisco in the West. They split two regular season meetings, with the Seahawks crushing the Niners 29-3 in Seattle.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Gene Cherry