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49ers’ win over discombobulated Panthers sets up epic rematch

By Ann Killion
San Francisco Chronicle

Jim Harbaugh didn’t gush over his team or smooch any reporter’s bald head. His players – while all smiles – got dressed quickly and answered questions professionally. No whooping or dancing, although Colin Kaepernick did have an amusing postgame moment as a faux reporter asking Anquan Boldin a question.

But for the most part on Sunday the 49ers were businesslike. Their methodical destruction of the Carolina Panthers – a 23-10 suffocation on both sides of the ball – set the 49ers up for exactly what they have been expecting. For what the public demanded.

A rematch with Seattle. In Seattle.

“We expect this,” safety Donte Whitner said. “This is not our first time. This felt like another game to us.”

The 49ers are in the NFC Championship Game for the third consecutive year, a trip they have taken every season of Harbaugh’s head-coaching tenure. Their playoff experience may have been the difference on Sunday against a young and often discombobulated Carolina team. The 49ers have won eight straight games and currently have the look and swagger of a Super Bowl favorite.

But first they must conquer Seattle. When he scored a third-quarter touchdown, Kaepernick mocked Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s Superman celebration, by pretending to rip open his shirt and to reveal an S.

But the 49ers young superhero is about to face his kryptonite.

With Kaepernick under center, the 49ers have been humiliated in their last two trips to Seattle, losing by the combined score of 71-16.

“That’s in the past,” Kaepernick said. “This is a different situation.”

He might be right, because Sunday’s rematch with Carolina was definitely a different situation from the regular-season game between the teams at Candlestick Park on Nov. 10. In that earlier game, the 49ers’ offense was depleted and anemic. Their performance fell flat and they lost to the Panthers.

Sunday’s game didn’t have any of the throwback epic quality of the game a week earlier in Green Bay. There was no subzero weather to overcome. But in Carolina, the 49ers faced a motivated, angry, trash-talking team that was eager to get its first playoff win since 2005.

The 49ers’ defense responded, tearing a page out of their team’s own history book with two epic goal-line stands that would make Dan Bunz proud. Bunz was the hero of the goal line stand in the 49ers’ first Super Bowl. On Sunday, it was Ahmad Brooks with a huge fourth-down stop.

“You could feel the air go out of the stadium,” Whitner said.

The offense, though, was frustrated early on by the Panthers defense. As in November, the 49ers had to settle for field goals on their early drives.

But in the waning seconds of the first half, the 49ers offense found some traction, when the ruling that a pass in the end zone to Vernon Davis wasn’t a touchdown was overturned on review. Even an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on whirling dervish Harbaugh, for rushing out on the field to try to stop the clock, didn’t hurt the 49ers. And the second half completely belonged to the 49ers, particularly their defense.

“We made up our minds at halftime to go out and force our will on them,” Whitner said.

The Panthers seemed willing to help. Carolina appeared intent on getting the extra hit in after every play and jawing non-stop with the 49ers. By game’s end, the Panthers had eight penalties for 73 yards.

In contrast to the hyped-up Panthers, the 49ers stayed relatively calm. And in the second half, the 49ers’ offense added 10 points and their defense shut out the Panthers.

The 49ers, forced to go on the road for the entire playoffs, are conquering all their foes. Two of the teams that beat them in the regular season – New Orleans and Indianapolis – were eliminated on Saturday. They took care of business with Carolina. But the Seahawks, the NFC West champions, will be the toughest. The teams split their regular-season meetings and the animosity has ramped up with every meeting.

“They don’t like us and we don’t like them,” Whitner said. “We know we have to go up there, into a hostile environment.”

“We know it’s going to be a dogfight,” Frank Gore said. “But we’re built for this.”

The chippy game with the Panthers was a good warm-up for next week.

The gamesmanship started before the 49ers had even advanced. News came out of Seattle that no ticket sales for the game would be allowed in California, or in 43 other states. By the time the 49ers’ win was in the books, Seattle had been installed as a three-point favorite. And the weather forecast was already double-checked: expect 52 degrees and — no surprise — rain.

But the 49ers feel they are up to any task. They have won back-to-back road playoff games for the first time in their long history. They have overcome the elements, hostile crowds and motivated opponents.

“You’re very proud of your team when you go on the road in a playoff game and beat another very good football team in their stadium,” Harbaugh said. “Yes, it does make you feel like a strong, mighty man.”

That is good. Because it will take some mighty men to defeat Seattle.

Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: akillion@9sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @annkillion
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