49ers show Panthers they are the big boys

NaVorro Bowman said the 49ers had "better players" than Carolina in advancing to the NFC title game. Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Linebacker NaVorro Bowman said the reason San Francisco 49ers are moving on to their third NFC Championship Game in as many seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh is simple.

“It came down to we had the better players than they did," the NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate said after the 49ers’ outphysicaled and outclutched the host Carolina Panthers in a convincing 23-10 victory in the divisional playoffs. “Yeah, we big-boyed them.”

Indeed. The San Francisco 49ers are big, bad boys.

There are few flaws in the franchise, and that was on display Sunday against a Carolina team that is among the league’s best. The problem for Carolina? The 49ers just may be the league’s very best.

San Francisco, which went 12-4 in the regular season and won in Green Bay in the wild-card round, has now won eight straight (the longest current win streak in the NFL) and 13 of their past 15 games.

Now, the inevitable is going to happen -- the 49ers will play at Seattle for the NFC title Sunday. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. ET. It may seem like this game has been developing for a full year between these two NFC West rivals. Each team held serve at their home field during the regular season.

After the win over Carolina, the 49ers seemed to relish the chance to head back to Seattle, where they have been outscored 71-16 the past two visits, for a chance to get back to the Super Bowl. After the 49ers beat Seattle on Dec. 8 at Candlestick Park, guard Alex Boone said several 49ers told Seattle players they’d see them again in the postseason.

“We didn’t lie,” Boone said Sunday. “If you can’t get excited about his game, you don’t belong in this league.”

Sunday, the 49ers showed they belong.

Seeing this team in the NFC Championship Game has become a yearly tradition under Harbaugh. He has made them tough, physical and focused. All that was on display against the Panthers.

This was a different game than when the Panthers beat the 49ers, 10-9, in San Francisco in Week 10.

“We were offended by that loss, that wasn’t us,” San Francisco fullback Anthony Dixon said Sunday. “Today was about showing Carolina that. We played offended. We showed them who we really are.”

San Francisco was much better offensively Sunday than the first meeting. The 49ers found a way to get into the end zone twice in addition to matching the three field goals they settled for in November against the Panthers.

Defensively, the 49ers played winning football against Carolina. Bowman said the team quietly had a feeling the game would develop the way it did.

“It goes back to having the better players,” he said. “We knew they weren’t going to be able to do much on our defense and then our offense was able to do their thing. So, we really take care of what we had to as a team.”

The 49ers took control of the game when Colin Kaepernick hit tight end Vernon Davis in the final seconds of the first half for a TD to take a 13-10 lead. The 49ers scored the second half’s only 10 points.

San Francisco showed it was the better team often in the second half.

The Panthers put together an 8-minute, 12-second drive only to have to punt because the 49ers came up with back-to-back sacks. This wasn’t the only time the San Francisco defense came up clutch. It had a goal-line stand in the first half and forced the Panthers to settle for a field goal on another goal-line drive.

Offensively, the 49ers, who allowed just one sack Sunday after giving up six against the Panthers in November, had the same clutch big plays. Kaepernick hit receiver Anquan Boldin four times for 75 yards in the second half. Running back Frank Gore broke a 39-yard run on third-and-1 to keep another long San Francisco scoring drive alive.

The 49ers weren’t only the better team -- their playoff experience showed as well. This was Kaepernick’s fifth playoff game. It was the first playoff game for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said it was "just another game" for the 49ers. He said he sensed it was bigger for the Panthers.

“Today, I think our playoff experience helped us,” Whitner said. “I think that showed.”

What showed most? The 49ers are moving to the NFC Championship Game because that’s where they belong.