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NFL Playoffs: 49ers, Broncos join Seahawks and Patriots in title games

USA TODAY Sports San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) runs for a touchdown against Carolina in the NFC divisional playoffs Sunday in Charlotte, N.C.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It took a while for the San Francisco 49ers to sort things out Sunday afternoon.

But quarterback Colin Kaepernick said it all turned out just like it was planned.

It’ll be the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game next Sunday.

“I think we’re the two teams everyone was kind of looking at from the beginning,” Kaepernick said after the 49ers dismissed the Carolina Panthers 23-10. “It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out.”

This one nearly turned out that way, too, given the chippy nature. The 49ers delivered the decisive blows to avenge a regular-season defeat.

“Every man man-up and they did,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of the approach for the second road victory in as many weeks in the playoffs. “The team is excited about moving on. This is a tournament.”

Kaepernick threw for a touchdown and ran for a score as San Francisco advanced to the NFC championship game for the third season in a row.

Kicker Phil Dawson, who a week earlier booted the game-winning field goal as time expired at the Green Bay Packers, added three field goals in the NFC division playoff game at Bank of America Stadium.

Penalties were costly to the Panthers, who were flagged on each of San Francisco’s first three scoring drives.

“We know it’s not what you do after the plays, it’s what you do during the plays,” 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin said. “We tried not to get too involved (with other stuff). Maybe sometimes we got too involved.”

The 49ers, who took the lead for good on the last snap of the first half, visit the Seahawks next Sunday for the NFC championship game and a chance to return to the Super Bowl.

The 49ers split two games with the Seahawks this season. The 49ers lost 29-3 at Seattle in September and won at home 19-17 in December.

The outcome ruined Carolina’s first playoff appearance in five years. Quarterback Cam Newton, in his postseason debut, threw two interceptions, including safety Donte Whitner’s pickoff after the Panthers moved into San Francisco territory in the last five minutes.

“We had a great season,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “The biggest thing to do is to learn from it.”

Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards. Running back Frank Gore added 84 yards on 17 carries.

Newton finished 16 of 25 for 267 yards. The Panthers, though, were shut out in the second half.

“At some point, we’ll be able to look back and see what the season was,” Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said. “We didn’t reach as far as our expectations. That’s the disappointing part.”

Kaepernick ran 4 yards for a touchdown with 8:53 to go in the third quarter as the 49ers boosted their lead to 20-10.

Kaepernick then mimicked Newton’s Superman pose in the end zone.

The Panthers held the ball for the next eight minutes, but back-to-back sacks after reaching 49ers territory forced a punt.

San Francisco chewed up another 7:52 to set up Dawson for his third field goal, the 34-yarder making it 23-10 with 7:41 left.

San Francisco held a 13-10 halftime lead after tight end Vernon Davis’ 1-yard touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone with five seconds left in the half. The play was initially ruled an incomplete pass until video review showed Davis had boot feet inbounds.

“They hit some plays,” Kuechly said. “At the end of the half, you have to be good and make that play right there.”

That was the 49ers’ first touchdown in nearly six full quarters against Carolina, which won 10-9 in the regular season at San Francisco. The 12-play drive covered 80 yards.

The 49ers did a better job protecting Kaepernick in the rematch against one of the league’s fiercest pass rushes.

“They knew out to hit us,” 49ers guard Alex Boone said. “I think we made some adjustments and kind of got that fixed. It worked out well for us. We went out and executed and some guys had great games and really made some big plays.”

Earlier in the quarter, Newton hit wide receiver Steve Smith with a 31-yard touchdown pass on the first play after wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.’s 24-yard punt return. That put Carolina ahead 7-6.

The Panthers moved inside the San Francisco 1 again later in the second quarter, but ended up with kicker Graham Gano’s 24-yard field goal after going 73 yards in 13 plays.

“That was a big statement,” 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said of the goal-line stand. “It let them know we came ready to play.”

San Francisco’s first possession was extended by a third-down personal foul penalty on Carolina safety Mike Mitchell. But after linebacker Luke Kuechly’s sack, the 49ers settled for Dawson’s 49-yard field goal.

Following linebacker Patrick Willis’ interception of Newton’s deflected pass, another Carolina personal foul penalty put San Francisco in field-goal range again. Dawson converted from 33 yards out for a 6-0 lead with 4:33 left in the first quarter.

NOTES: The temperature was listed at 54 degrees at kickoff Sunday, a far cry from a week earlier when the 49ers played in sub-zero conditions at Green Bay. ... The Panthers were 10 for 13 on fourth-down conversions in the regular season, then were stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 49ers 1 on the first play of the second quarter. ... 49ers FB Will Tukuafu suffered a knee injury on the game’s first series after making a catch. He did not return. ... Panthers CB Quintin Mikell did not return from a second-quarter foot injury. ... 49ers CB Carlos Rogers, a starter, was inactive. ... 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is the first NFL coach to win 13 or more games (including playoffs) in each of his first three seasons. ... This was the first postseason matchup between the 49ers and Panthers, who were NFC West rivals from 1995-2001.

Broncos survive Chargers’ rally


The Denver Broncos survived a fourth-quarter fightback by the San Diego Chargers to claim a 24-17 win on Sunday and advance to the AFC Championship game for the first time in eight years.

The victory sets up a tantalizing showdown between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks next Sunday when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots visit the Mile High city to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.

“It’s Broncos verses the Patriots, certainly Tom and I have played a lot but when you get to the AFC championship it’s about two good teams that did a lot to get there,” said Manning. “They’re a great team, they had a big win last night so we are going to enjoy this one tonight and start to work on them tomorrow and it ought to be a heck of a game.”

Manning, who passed for a record 55 touchdowns during a record-smashing regular season, was more clinical than spectacular on a blustery, cool day in Colorado.

He completed 25 passes for a modest 230 yards, including short touchdown strikes to Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker in the first half.

The red-hot Chargers arrived in Denver riding the momentum from a five-game winning streak and had looked poised to keep their season alive with a fourth quarter rally that cut Denver’s 17-point advantage to seven.

But with just under four minutes to play, Manning would not give Philip Rivers and the Chargers another chance, running out the clock with ball control offense to clinch the victory.

“All-in-all I think our defense played one of its better games,” said Broncos head coach John Fox. “It’s about doing your job, doing it under pressure but we’re going to have to play a lot better going forward.”

The Broncos’ high-octane offense was firing on all cylinders right from the their first possession, Manning engineering Denver’s longest scoring drive of the season marching his team 86 yards capped by two-yard touchdown pass to Thomas.

In the second quarter, Manning put together another long drive finished off by a three-yard pass to Welker to take a 14-0 lead into the intermission.

It was, however, far from a perfect first half for the Broncos with their other two possession ending in an interception in the end zone and a fumble.

The San Diego attack was having far bigger problems, Rivers completing just five of eight pass attempts for 20 yards in an ugly first half while being sacked three times.

Denver had the ball to open the second half and immediately added to lead, Matt Prater booting a 45-yard field goal to put the Broncos up 17-0.

Later in the quarter Prater, who had missed one field goal attempt the entire season, would misfire from the 47 leaving the door slightly opening the door for San Diego’s fourth quarter comeback.

Rivers found rookie speedster Keenan Allen with a 16-yard touchdown pass to chop the Denver lead to 17-7.

The Broncos would hit right back, Knowshon Moreno rumbling up the middle for three yards to finish off yet another long drive but the never-say-die Chargers refused to throw in the towel, Rivers firing another 16-yard strike to Allen on their very next possession.

With over five minutes to play, the Chargers recovered an onside kick and turned it into a 30-yard Nick Novak field goal to slice the Denver lead to 24-17, sending a jolt through the soldout stadium.

“This was a pretty intense game, Philip (Rivers) got hot there in the second half and I did not want to give him the ball back there at the end,” said Manning. “They are a good football team, they fight, Philip is a we knew it was going to be a 60-minute game.

“This was a big team win.”