CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at Bank of America Stadium was decided in the sliver of real estate that lies between the goal lines and the 1-yard lines. Those combined 6 feet of territory were dominated by the 49ers, and they wound up with a 23-10 win over the Panthers because of it.
The 49ers stuffed the Panthers twice in that zone of destiny, forcing a turnover on downs and then a field goal, before scoring a touchdown from close range to take the lead for good just before halftime.
"We pride ourselves on keeping teams out of the end zone,'' 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said of the goal-line stands. "They're gonna make big plays, they're gonna have good players, too, but if we can hold up at the goal line four downs in a row, man, that just lets you know that we're here to play and it's going to be a long day.''
And a longer season, by at least a week. The fifth-seeded 49ers will face the top-seeded Seahawks in Seattle in next weekend's NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers were up 6-0 when, on the first play of the second quarter, the Panthers tried to convert a fourth-and-goal from inside the 1. Cam Newton attempted a quarterback sneak but was swallowed up by linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Newton, making his first postseason appearance, said he told coach Ron Rivera during the break between quarters that he could score on the play.
"He put it in my hands to call it,'' Newton said. "I felt as if I failed him in that way.''
The Panthers forced the 49ers to punt from deep in their territory and scored on a 31-yard pass from Newton to Steve Smith shortly after the dramatic stop, taking a 7-6 lead.
On their next possession, the Panthers again marched to the brink of the end zone. On first-and-goal from the 7, Newton ran a keeper around left end and seemed to have a lane to a touchdown before Bowman tackled him at the 1. On third-and-goal, still at the 1, Brooks sailed over the line of scrimmage and was flagged for encroachment, but that gave the Panthers only a few inches. They handed the ball to Mike Tolbert on the next snap, and he was stuffed by Bowman.
Rivera, who has been known for his gambling style all season and was nicknamed "Riverboat Ron'' by the local media, decided to fold 'em and kick the field goal for a 10-6 lead with 4:47 left in the half.
"To keep them out of the end zone on the goal line,'' 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, "that's a statement.''
It also left enough time for the 49ers to put together their longest drive of the game. They faced third down only once, on goal-to-go from the 9, and a pass from Colin Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin was incomplete. But a late flag for pass interference against Drayton Florence extended the drive and gave the 49ers the ball at the 1.
The Panthers already had shown that the last yard can be the hardest to get, and for the 49ers, their short journey was not without drama. On second- and-goal, Kaepernick rolled right and threw a pass to tight end Vernon Davis in the back right corner of the end zone that initially was ruled an incompletion. After a review, the ruling was overturned to a touchdown when replays showed Davis had dragged his left foot before going out of bounds.
The 49ers extended the lead to 20-10 early in the third quarter when Kaepernick hit Boldin on a 45-yard pass -- cornerback Captain Munnerlyn bit on a pump fake to leave Boldin wide open -- and then took a keeper around left end for a 4-yard touchdown.
It was another example of the 49ers being able to control the game in the tightest of spaces. Harbaugh compared the play to arm wrestling and noted the physical struggles on the field despite the lopsided final. It was similar in style, if not score, to the Week 10 game between the teams in San Francisco that the Panthers won, 10-9.
So how does it feel to win a game in such down-and-dirty fashion?
Said Harbaugh: "It makes you feel like a strong, mighty man.''