CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Colin Kaepernick ran, unmolested, 4 yards into the end zone. He dropped the ball and mimed ripping his shirt apart, a move Superman invented and a move hometown quarterback Cam Newton has showily co-opted.
Hands in the Bank of America Stadium stands went to their open mouths. And then the San Francisco 49ers quarterback buttoned up his imaginary shirt -- and went into his own trademarked post-touchdown celebration, kissing his bicep.
It was audacious. It showed moxie. It announced this game over.
"We all have a little a-- in us," Niners right tackle Anthony Davis said after the game, laughing and yet wholly unapologetic. After all, it was a bit of toughness and a bit of swagger that pushed these 49ers to a 23-10 divisional-round knockout win. The Panthers fought Sunday afternoon, and San Francisco punched, kicked and headbutted (figuratively and literally) right back. On the road. For the prize of a third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game.
This 49ers team is about Frank Gore, one of the league's most punishing downhill runners, who this week acted as seer, telling Vernon Davis he would have a play in the back corner of the end zone where he'd have to drag his feet. Gore, a running back, threw dozens of balls just like that to Davis in practice all week. So when the ball flew toward the tight end with 14 seconds to play in the first half, he thought to himself, "I got this." And he did, sending San Francisco into halftime with a 13-10 lead.
This team is about Anquan Boldin, who hauled in a 45-yarder with a picture-perfect double move to set up Kaepernick's touchdown run, and who this season has brought a specific brand of fierce to the 49ers. He sets a tone. Boldin was the one to give Jim Harbaugh a stern talking-to after his coach strayed too far on the field. And he is the one who blocks like a lineman, right guard Alex Boone said. (Boone also said, "I think the Ravens are really kicking themselves right now," referencing the 2013 sixth-round draft pick the world champion Ravens traded Boldin away for in March.)
This team is about an old-school, drag-down defense, one that first stuffed Carolina's Mike Tolbert and then Newton on third and fourth downs from the San Francisco 1-yard line, protecting a then-6-0 lead and saying, in linebacker NaVorro Bowman's words, "We're here to play, and it's going to be a long day."
The 49ers' defense in the first half: one sack, one quarterback hit. In the second half: four sacks and eight hits on a quarterback who needed a good hour and 10 minutes after the game ended before he'd come face reporters. When Newton did step behind the podium, he said the Niners did "absolutely" nothing that surprised the Panthers and, frankly, the 49ers' defense was vanilla. But the unit was chock full of more battle-tested players who simply played better.
Yes, this San Francisco squad is about experience. Over and over, all around the visitors' locker room, the word "poised" was used, the previous two playoff runs having taught this team to harness its emotion. Anthony Davis said having played divisional-round games twice before "helped us a lot" Sunday, when things got chippy early (see: head-butts), and it'll help, Vernon Davis said, next week in Seattle.
This team is about Harbaugh, who came to a franchise on an eight-year playoff drought and who has an absurd brand of intensity, one that saw him so far on the field on that Vernon Davis touchdown catch that the tight end afterward could not stop chuckling at a snapshotted image of his coach on someone's cellphone. "You're like, 'What's he doing?' " Boone said, adding: "You gotta love a guy like that."
And, of course, this team is definitely about Kaepernick. In the second half, when Newton started sailing passes -- something Carolina coach Ron Rivera has said his quarterback does when he's anxious and excited -- Kaepernick got sharper. He's now won three road playoff games (three times as many as Joe Montana and Steve Young combined to win with the Niners), and there's nothing he backs down from. Calling him special and then trying to elucidate why, Vernon Davis said, "He's so tough. I wouldn't expect a quarterback to be as tough as he is."
Kaepernick openly admits to holding grudges. He talked about his draft position (No. 36 overall in 2011) this week, and after Sunday's game, he said, "I still won't forget it." He warned his opponents who like to jaw: "I'm not just going to let you say anything you want to me. If you are going to say something to me, I am going to respond."
So no, he didn't bring up Panthers safety Mike Mitchell mimicking his own celebratory bicep kiss after a sack in the teams' first meeting this season. But Kap surely remembers it. And he did smile over his own mimicked end-zone show Sunday, calling it "a little shout-out."
To the league.
Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.