CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jim Harbaugh, Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49ers have come too far -- literally and otherwise -- to get bounced from the NFL postseason tournament now.

Last week, they took a harrowing trip into the ice age and survived both the permafrost and a prickly challenge from the Green Bay Packers.

This weekend, the 49ers flew cross-country to face flash flood warnings around town Saturday, and Sunday they'll get a rematch against Carolina, which beat and beat up the 49ers in November.

And the 49ers will survive all this, too.

Why? Because the 49ers are destined to play the Seattle Seahawks to decide the NFC championship next Sunday in Seattle, and that means the 49ers are destined to beat Carolina on Sunday.

The 49ers also are destined to beat the Panthers because -- the Nov. 10 Candlestick meeting aside -- the 49ers are the better team, with more ways to win, and with the coach and quarterback set up to win these kinds of games.

The 49ers' biggest edge: Harbaugh over Carolina's Ron Rivera, coaching his first playoff game.

The 49ers' most intriguing matchup: quarterback Colin Kaepernick vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton, also playing in his first playoff game.

With all other things being equal, and they mostly are, Harbaugh and Kaepernick are the two biggest factors for the 49ers in this game.

They're also the two biggest reasons why the 49ers have come so far as a team since that 10-9 loss to the Panthers in their ninth game of the season.

Harbaugh has managed this season with the playoffs in mind the whole time, and it's showing now.

The 49ers defense looks fresh, and the offense has gotten a jump-start since receiver Michael Crabtree returned from his torn Achilles.

And after his early-to-midseason slump, Kaepernick is doing a 2012 flashback: rocketing through defenses and playing without the tentativeness that doomed him against Carolina the first time.

That was not a pretty game or a proud game for the 49ers, who took an early 9-0 lead but couldn't get into the end zone and lost when Carolina scored a touchdown near the end of the first half and kicked the winning field goal in the fourth quarter.

But beyond the scoreboard, it was a telling game: The 49ers gave up six sacks, committed two turnovers, watched Kaepernick struggle throughout ... and still lost by only a point.

This past week, I asked Harbaugh if he thought the 49ers generally played decently in that game.

"We didn't win the game," Harbaugh said. "That's the criteria that we judge ourselves on how we played as a team."

But did you think you matched up physically with Carolina?

"Physically matched up? Yes," Harbaugh said emphatically. "Yes."

That's an enormous point, because the Panthers can be dominant physically and at times overwhelmed the 49ers in November.

But only at times. And that wasn't the reason the 49ers lost the game.

The 49ers lost because Kaepernick didn't make the plays that were there, because the coaching staff abandoned the run game too quickly, and because the defense broke down one time (on DeAngelo Williams' 27-yard touchdown run).

Overall, the 49ers defense stopped Newton and the Panthers offense -- and I think everything points to the 49ers D doing it again Sunday.

Can the 49ers offense get into the end zone this time? It all depends on the 49ers' ability to sustain drives -- because of bad field position and their own struggles on third down, the 49ers had only 21 offensive plays in the second half.

"It was a weird game," 49ers tackle Joe Staley said.

The 49ers also lost because Crabtree was out and Vernon Davis was knocked out in the second quarter after registering one catch for 2 yards. Both are healthy now.

All the same anti-49ers things, of course, could happen again Sunday, or Carolina could win by swamping the 49ers in different ways.

But I don't think the Panthers can win if Kaepernick plays the way he did against Green Bay, if Frank Gore gets more than a handful of carries in the second half, and if the 49ers defense plays the way it has all season.

"Usually the game comes down to what both teams do best," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said, "and that's probably what's going to happen Sunday."

These two are very similar teams with similar QBs and similar styles; it's just that the 49ers roster and coaching staff has a recent history of producing in just these moments ... in wind, sleet, snow or flash floods.

Prediction: 49ers 17, Carolina 13.

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

LYNCH POWERS SEAHAWKS;
Patriots' blount runs for 4 TDs

Marshawn Lynch (right) scored
two touchdowns to carry Seattle past New Orleans, and LeGarrette Blount ran for four touchdowns to spark New England past Indianapolis. PAGE 6

nfl playoffs » divisional round

Saturday's scores
NFC: Seattle 23, New Orleans 15
AFC: New England 43, Indianapolis 22
Sunday's games
NFC: 49ers at Carolina, 10:05 a.m. FOX
AFC: San Diego at Denver, 1:40 p.m. CBS


SUNDAY'S 49ERS CHAT

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