Niners get dry run for Seattle

Posted: January 14, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - This would have been the perfect tuneup for the NFC Championship Game next Sunday at Seattle, Ahmad Brooks said afterward, except for one thing - the cloudless blue sky over Bank of America Stadium yesterday, as the San Francisco 49ers wore down, frustrated, and eventually unhinged the Carolina Panthers, 23-10, in a divisional round playoff game.

Chippy play, with lots of yapping back and forth? Check. Physical defense on both sides? Check. San Francisco asked to contain an explosive, mobile quarterback? Check. Hostile road venue? Check.

But the 54-degree sunshine, with only a slight breeze?


"If it would have rained today, we would have been [completely] prepared for Seattle," Brooks said after the 49ers shut out the Panthers in the second half en route to the 49ers' third successive NFC Championship berth. "I still feel like we're ready."

The 49ers know a lot about Seattle. They have lost in their last two visits to the city on Puget Sound, by a combined score of 71-16. The Seahawks, who trounced the visiting 49ers, 29-3, back on Sept. 15, won the NFC West this season, forcing the 49ers on a wild-card journey through Green Bay and Charlotte to get to CenturyLink Stadium and the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, which the 49ers were a play away from winning a year ago against the Ravens.

This season, the 49ers won the rematch with the Seahawks in San Francisco, 19-17, back on Dec. 8. In fact, they've now won eight in a row overall, including their two postseason wins. But none of those games was played in Seattle, where the "12th man" flag flies, and the Seahawks are 15-1 over the past two regular seasons.

"I think we're the two teams everybody was looking at from the beginning,"offered 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who completed just 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards, but avoided turning the ball over, unlike Panthers QB Cam Newton, who threw two interceptions, the final one a killer for Carolina, which was driving with a first down at the 49ers' 28, down 23-10 with 4 minutes, 22 seconds remaining. On the previous drive, Newton took back-to-back sacks that pushed the Panthers out of field-goal range.

Carolina, new to the big stage, looked like the more talented team in the first half but missed some big chances and didn't get some calls. In the second half, the Panthers were crushed by the methodical 49ers, and they unraveled. Carolina seemed to have forced a punt on the series after the late interception, using all its timeouts so that 4:02 still remained, only to see corner Josh Thomas go to the ground with San Francisco receiver Quinton Patton at the end of the third-down play and either mime or miss a punch to Patton's face. Unsportsmanlike conduct, 15 yards, any hint of a doubt to the outcome removed.

"Silly penalties, silly mistakes, not seizing the moment," lamented Newton, who was occasionally brilliant but inconsistent on a 16-for-25, 267-yard afternoon, that featured a perfect 31-yard TD throw to Steve Smith along with those two interceptions. Newton ran 10 times for 54 yards, only three times for 14 yards in the second half.

"Playoff football is a different speed from the regular season. I learned that today," he said after his postseason debut.

The 49ers weren't in a learning mode.

"We've experienced a lot now, this is our third straight trip to the NFC Championship, and we've seen every quarterback in the National Football League," San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said. "We've seen every offense. We've seen star players, and we've played in big games. We also understand what it takes to win big games. You have to simplify things. You have to go out there and be in the moment and understand what you're doing - stick to fundamentals, play physical, and get turnovers - and that's what we did."

The 49ers used Brooks to shadow Newton, and Brooks, who finished with 2 1/2 sacks, stopped Newton on a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal from the 49ers' 1 on the first play of the second quarter (though the Panthers ended up getting good field position and scoring on their next possession). Brooks also later provided comic relief, hurdling the line well before the snap and ending up behind Newton in the Carolina backfield. The ensuing half-the-distance penalty from the 1 was inconsequential.

"We have to be smart and aware of what he is trying to do, and what he is capable of doing," Brooks said, words that could apply to Seattle's Russell Wilson as well as they applied to Newton.

The 49ers' next goal-line stand, which included Brooks' leap, ended with NaVorro Bowman stuffing Carolina running back Mike Tolbert for a yard loss on third-and-goal from the 1. It was the play of the game.

San Francisco, trailing 10-6 after Graham Gano's 24-yard field goal, then drove 80 yards in 12 plays to take a 13-10 halftime lead on Vernon Davis' end-zone toe drag with 5 seconds remaining. The pass was first ruled incomplete, and somehow the clock kept running, said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, causing him to run onto the field and take a 15-yard penalty.

Replay review discerned the toe drag. Unfortunately for Carolina, there was no replay review just before that when the 49ers got away with a head butt identical to the one the Panthers had been penalized for, or for ref Carl Cheffers not penalizing San Francisco for having too many men in the huddle as they prepared for the TD play. (Cheffers told a pool reporter he hadn't set the ball, so it was OK to have 12 men. The pool reporter checked the replay and said Cheffers did set the ball, with 12 Niners in the huddle.)

Like New England the night before, San Francisco seemed to get just about every break from the officiating crew, but also like the Patriots against the Colts, the 49ers ultimately proved themselves the better team.

"It was a real arm-wrestling kind of struggle," Harbaugh said. He compared the outcome to "playground basketball," in that the winner moves on, the loser goes home. It also was like a playground game in the constant finger-to-chest woofing, the repeated scrums. This is exactly the way the Seahawks play, especially on defense; the NFL might want to import some NHL refs for next week, or at least a few linesmen to break up the shoving matches.

Anquan Boldin, who caught eight passes for 136 yards, with the Panthers focusing on Michael Crabtree, said the 49ers "played right up to the edge." Carolina fell off that edge, and ended a transformational 12-4 season.

Boldin, by the way, caught just one pass in that Sept. 15 trip to Seattle, blanketed by corner Richard Sherman, who knows a little about playing to the edge. The 49ers turned the ball over five times that day.

"We're willing to do whatever it takes," said 49ers running back Frank Gore, who churned out 84 yards on 17 carries against the Panthers. "We didn't finish last year. Now we're back, or we're going to be. We have to go to Seattle. We know it's going to be a dogfight, but we're built for this."

On Twitter: @LesBowen