CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Early in the game Sunday, you'd have thought the 49ers and Carolina Panthers were longtime rivals. It seemed every play ended with jawing and shoving. The PDAs (public displays of animosity) were out of control.

But by the waning stages of the game, the yapping had all but ceased. The chippyness had subsided.

Carolina stopped talking because of repeated punches to the mouth. The 49ers defense turned it up a notch and put an end to the celebrating and manufactured machismo.

San Francisco stopped because ... well ...

"At that point," cornerback Tramaine Brock explained, "you don't have too much to say. On our side of the ball, we talk, too. So it's just competition. But in the end, the scoreboard speaks for itself."

In the rematch of a defensive showdown from November, the 49ers proved they were the better defense. Carolina is no doubt legit on that end. But not yet Super Bowl-caliber, which is the level of defense that took apart the Panthers offense in the 49ers' 23-10 NFC divisional round win.

It wasn't physicality that made San Francisco's defense superior. It wasn't as simple as the 49ers being faster and deeper. The difference was composure. The difference was the professionalism with which they executed.

Leaning on confidence built by two previous trips through this fire, the 49ers defense simply regrouped and asserted its will. As if the question were not whether they would conquer but just how much elbow grease would be required.


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And when the 49ers defense was done, the inferiority of the foe was obvious. A reality that zipped lips.

"It's the playoffs. It would be wrong if they didn't talk," Aldon Smith said. "We're mentally tough. We kind of know what's coming. We do what we have to do to prepare for it, and we don't retaliate. But we're not going to be taken as no punks.

"We went out there, played four quarters of football and stayed to what we practiced. We're just getting better every week. We're not taking steps back."

Next week, the 49ers will face a fellow elite defense as they head to Seattle for the NFC Championship game. But first they showed the Panthers they aren't there yet and that just talking as though they are won't do the trick.

Panthers stud receiver Steve Smith was a microcosm for how the 49ers defense took over this game. He had four catches for 74 yards in the first half, including a 31-yard touchdown reception. It looked as if he would be a problem for the 49ers defense. And he let the visitors hear about it, too, talking enough trash to be a spokesman for Waste Management.

But after his touchdown, he didn't catch another ball. He was targeted just once in the second half, relegated a nonfactor. The feisty receiver was silenced.

So was the Panthers offense, as the 49ers pitched a shutout in the second half. It began with two goal-line stops in the first half, thwarting Carolina touchdowns that would've changed the game.

The Panthers managed just 130 yards in the second half. Save for the meaningless drive at the end when the game was decided, they failed to even reach the red zone in the second half (after 13 plays inside San Francisco's 20 in the first half).

The 49ers did it by completely neutralizing dynamic quarterback Cam Newton, who had it clicking early. After halftime, he was sacked four times, hit eight times, had four passes deflected and picked off to seal the game.

The foundation for the dominance was established with the two goal-line stands.

The first was punctuated by a fourth-and-goal stuff on the opening play of the second quarter, 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks winning a collision with Newton inches from pay dirt. Then later in the quarter, the Panthers had first-and-goal from the San Francisco 7 and walked away with just a field goal.

"If we can hold up at the goal line," NaVorro Bowman said, "that just lets you know we're here to play and it's going to be a long day. ... As the game goes on, we wake up. We play even harder. We started understanding what they were doing."

That's what separates the 49ers defense from other really, really good defenses such as Carolina's: a relentless confidence fostered through years of enforcement. They believe they will eventually wear you down.

When offenses are making headway, 49ers defenders just know the necessary plays will be made.

When key players are out, as was inactive cornerback Carlos Rogers, they're sure his backup will fill in adequately.

When the other team is yapping away, they know they will get the last word.

Sunday, they didn't have to use it, though.

"We won," Aldon Smith said through a laugh when asked if they sent a message. "You know what I'm saying? We won."

Contact Marcus Thompson II at mthomps2@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ThompsonScribe.