San Francisco's convincing 23-10 divisional round playoff win over the Carolina Panthers made it clear that the more talented, enduring and battle-tested team is moving on to face Seattle in the NFC title game.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio completely outmaneuvered Panthers play-caller Mike Shula over the final 30 minutes. After accounting for just one sack and quarterback hit on Cam Newton over the first two quarters, San Francisco drove Carolina's passer crazy down the stretch.
The 49ers don't run an exotic scheme, but what they do, they do well because of Fangio's leadership and experience in the crucible of January games. After Newton completed 8 of 10 passes at 13.6 yards per attempt over the first two quarters, Cam and the Panthers were badgered and shut out the rest of the way.
San Francisco's offense made adjustments of their own. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw 24 passes over the first two quarters, but tossed just four in the second half as play-caller Greg Roman attacked Carolina with a punishing, clock-chewing ground game.
The choice to patiently grind away at Carolina directly led to Frank Gore's 39-yard, back-breaking blast into sunlight on a third-and-short scenario for the 49ers in the final quarter. That big chunk of yardage triggered a clock-chewing drive that lifted San Francisco to a 13-point lead and all but stuck a fork in the Panthers.
"That was huge," Harbaugh told reporters after the win. "It was a time in the game where we were trying to run clock. To pop it in those conditions is huge. Frank's got a way of doing that."
Beating the 49ers takes more than talent. The task requires challengers to outsmart two of the league's premier coordinators. Pulling that off twice in one season was too tall an order for the Carolina Panthers.