San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE - San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the defending NFC champions within one win of a Super Bowl return trip by exacting revenge for the worst loss of his young career.
Kaepernick, 26, threw for one touchdown and ran for another Sunday in sparking a 23-10 division-round ouster of the Carolina Panthers.
The 49ers will meet the archrival Seahawks in Seattle in next Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
Kaepernick is now 4-1 in playoff starts and 3-0 on the road in postseason.
Coach Jim Harbaugh's 49ers became the first team since the 1977 Minnesota Vikings to reach the NFC title game the season after losing the Super Bowl. Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young won once on the road combined during their 49ers playoff careers.
San Francisco (14-4) has won eight in a row. The 49ers split their games with the Seahawks this season, but the loss came decisively after a 29-3 defeat in Seattle in Week 2.
Carolina's season ended after coach Ron Rivera's squad rallied from a 1-3 start to reach the playoffs for the first time in five years. But their overall lack of playoff experience caught up to them as they melted down with eight penalties that cost them 73 yards as they attempted to match San Francisco's physical style.
Niners safety Donte Whitner sealed this one with his interception of Cam Newton at the San Francisco 9-yard line with 4:22 left.
Kaepernick finished 15 of 28 for 196 yards and ran for 15 yards. Eleven-year veteran receiver Anquan Boldin came up big with eight catches for 136 yards. Frank Gore rushed 17 times for 84 yards, and Phil Dawson hit three field goals.
Newton hit 16 of 25 passes for 267 yards with a touchdown, a pair of interceptions and was sacked five times as the 49ers dominated the second half.
This one had everything - a pair of goal-line stands by the 49ers' third-ranked scoring defense, big plays and plenty of chippy, post-play pushing, shoving and taunting.
"We owe them," Kaepernick said of the Panthers last week, referencing Carolina's 10-9 win in San Francisco on Nov. 10. Kaepernick completed just 11 passes for 91 yards and was sacked six times in that defeat.
But Kaepernick came on Sunday after a slow start. The third-year signal caller who replaced Alex Smith last season and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl hit tight end Vernon Davis for a 1-yard touchdown that put San Francisco up 13-10 just seconds before halftime. Replay review awarded San Francisco the score after official initially ruled Davis' foot was out of bounds on the catch.
It was the eighth-year tight end's seventh postseason touchdown catch, tying him with Hall of Famer Dave Casper for most at the position in the playoffs.
The play compensated for an otherwise erratic first half by Kaepernick, who hit just 11 of 24 passes for 121 yards and a 75.2 passer rating.
On San Francisco's initial possession of the second half, Kaepernick drove the 49ers 77 yards in eight plays, culminating in his 4-yard scoring run. He did Newton's signature Superman celebration in the end zone as the 49ers pulled ahead 20-10.
Panthers receiver Steve Smith streaked past cornerback Tarell Brown on Newton's perfect, 31-yard scoring strike for 7-6 lead at the start of the second quarter, igniting the Bank of America Stadium crowd. Smith, 34, had been listed as questionable after spraining his left knee Dec. 22 against the New Orleans Saints. But he responded by catching the first four passes Newton threw his way for 74 yards.
The only thing that stopped the Panthers early on seemed to be the San Francisco 1-yard line. On two first-half possessions, the 49ers rose up on goal-line stands and limited Carolina to just three points from inside their own 8.
They stuffed Newton on fourth-and-goal the first time. The second time, "Riverboat" Ron, a nickname the once conservative Rivera earned for his willingness to go for it on fourth down, called on Graham Gano to boot a 19-yard field goal for a 10-6 lead.
But the Panthers never scored again, and the offense essentially disappeared after halftime.