CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What in the world was Jim Harbaugh doing when he sprinted 20 yards onto the field, screaming and pointing like a maniac?

Practically, the 49ers coach was far afoul of the rules while he protested a clock issue and instantly drew a 15-yard penalty in the second quarter Sunday.

But emotionally, Harbaugh was, as always, the 49ers' lightning rod and their raging, brawling essence during this stirring 23-10 divisional round victory over the Carolina Panthers.

He temporarily lost his mind there, no doubt.

His 49ers won, though -- won the moment, won the game and, most importantly, won the right for a final showdown against their arch-rival Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

They didn't win because it was easy; the 49ers won because they were at their best and fiercest when it got difficult.

"He's passionate," 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said of Harbaugh's dash. "I can't be mad at him for trying to get a call and trying to get things right."

The 49ers produced a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis on the very play Harbaugh disputed in the final minutes of the first half (via replay review), which gave them a 13-10 lead, and from there they dominated the Panthers.

When Carolina hit the 49ers, the 49ers hit back harder; when Carolina yelled at the 49ers, the 49ers yelled back; when Carolina moved down to the 49ers goal line twice in the first half, the 49ers defense held the Panthers out of the end zone both times.

When Carolina took a 7-6 lead on a long touchdown pass by Cam Newton then extended the lead to 10-6, the 49ers came back with that go-ahead second-quarter touchdown pass to Davis and then much more.

And when Harbaugh thought there was a mistake by the clock operator, he made sure the entire universe knew about it.

The symbolism: To get through the 49ers, you have to get through Harbaugh first.

Add all that together, and the 49ers made it to the NFC title game for the third time in Harbaugh's three-season tenure.

"You're very proud of your team ... when you go out on the road and in a playoff game beat another team that's a very good football team in their stadium," Harbaugh said.

"Yes, it does make you feel like a strong, mighty man."

Sunday's victory was uncomfortable for the 49ers at times and in some doubt, and that was fitting because the 49ers' entire playoff journey this season has been the trickiest sort.

They went to frigid Green Bay a week ago then right after that had to fly out to North Carolina to play a Panthers team that knocked the 49ers down in November.

Maybe that's why the 49ers made it sound like they'd just gotten through the roughest, most violent dress rehearsal in recorded history.

All of it, just to get back to Seattle ... for the real show, the big game, the one moment that will define this entire season, probably.

"Yeah, I think we were the two teams that everybody was kind of looking at from the beginning," Kaepernick said of the Seattle matchup. "It's going to be a knock-down, drag-out game."

The Seahawks, for the record, have destroyed the 49ers the last two times the teams have met in Seattle, including this season's 29-3 shellacking in Week 2, when Kaepernick and the 49ers offense was wiped out.

But the 49ers are a very different and much more confident team now, after winning their final six regular-season games (including a victory at Candlestick over Seattle) and these two hardy playoff games.

"Long story short -- they know us, we know them," inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman said of Seattle. "We've got to go there; we all know the history.

"But this is for the Super Bowl, man, everything's on the line. That just says it all."

The stubborn, ferocious 49ers survived both and are proud that they have taken such a perilous road while Seattle only had to win a home game against New Orleans on Saturday.

The harder it gets, the stronger the 49ers play, which has become the theme of this postseason.

"When you come all the way across country and beat a great team, that's some momentum right there," guard Alex Boone said.

"And we're going to have to take all that momentum and take it into Seattle because we're going to need everything we've got."

This, of course, is the game everybody in the NFL and in the 49ers and Seahawks organizations has anticipated, and wanted, for months now.

Seattle is fresher, has been able to stay at home and is just waiting for the 49ers.

But the 49ers have survivors' momentum and a coach who can lose his mind while pushing his team to win the biggest games.

Read Tim Kawakami's Talking Points blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/kawakami. Contact him at tkawakami@mercurynews.com.