CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 49ers are heading to their third NFC Championship game in as many years, advancing with a comeback 23-10 win Sunday over the host Carolina Panthers.
All that stands in the 49ers' way of a return Super Bowl trip is a predictable and fierce obstacle: the top-seeded Seahawks in next Sunday's conference final at Seattle.
The 49ers haven't won at noisy CenturyLink Field since 2011, getting outscored 71-16 in their past two regular-season trips. But the 49ers did beat the Seahawks 19-17 in their most recent meeting, Dec. 8 at Candlestick.
Winning on the road has been the 49ers' survival method in these playoffs, from their 23-20 wild-card win at Green Bay to Sunday's grind-out win at No. 2-seed Carolina. Never in 49ers history had they previously played back-to-back road playoff games.
Early offensive woes didn't prevent the 49ers from leaving Charlotte with their eighth straight win.
The 49ers defense buckled down in the second half to protect a lead that swelled to 20-10 on Colin Kaepernick's 4-yard, third-quarter touchdown run. Keying that drive was a 44-yard completion to Anquan Boldin at the 2.
Donte Whitner intercepted a Cam Newton pass at the 49ers 9-yard line with 4:22 remaining to seal the Panthers' fate.
But what really turned the tide for the 49ers was Vernon Davis' 1-yard touchdown catch for a 13-10 lead 5 seconds before halftime. Officials initially ruled that Davis was out of bounds, prompting 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to charge onto the field in protest and draw himself a 15-yard, unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
The 49ers pushed their lead to 23-10 with 7:41 remaining when Phil Dawson made his third field goal of the game, capping off a 13-play drive that chewed up nearly eight minutes. Frank Gore put the 49ers' in Dawson's range with a 39-yard run, doubling Gore's output up to that point.
Down 13-6 with 3:41 remaining in the half, the 49ers marched 80 yards on 12 plays for Davis' go-ahead touchdown. Although Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin made key receptions on the drive, what really helped the 49ers' cause was a pass-interference penalty on Drayton Florence in the end zone, on a third-and-goal pass to Boldin.
The 49ers' earlier two scoring drives — a pair of first-quarter field goals — also were boosted by Panthers' penalties, those of the unnecessary-roughness variety: Mike Mitchell sideswiped Vernon Davis on the opening drive, and Captain Munnerlyn head-butted Crabtree on the second drive.
The Panthers went ahead 7-6 when Cam Newton hit Steve Smith in stride for a 31-yard touchdown catch against Tarell Brown, who never turned his head to spot the ball. Preceding that snap was a 24-yard punt return by former 49er Ted Ginn Jr.
Carolina's quick-strike touchdown soured a goal-line stand by the 49ers defense the last time they were on the field, when Ahmad Brooks stopped Newton on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
The 49ers' goal-line defense came through again in the second quarter, when the Panthers settled for a 24-yard field goal after reaching the 1. Ahmad Brooks' offside leap into the backfield didn't hurt the 49ers, and NaVorro Bowman followed it by tackling Mike Tolbert for a 1-yard loss third-and-goal.