By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - You don't know what you don't know.
The Carolina Panthers learned that lesson the hard way on Sunday when Colin Kaepernick threw a touchdown pass and ran for another as the San Francisco 49ers advanced to their third consecutive NFC Championship Game following a 23-10 victory over the Panthers.
If this game were in December, Carolina might have had a chance.
Things change when the calendar turns, however, and the Panthers couldn't respond against an extremely confident San Francisco team, which never lost its swagger even after falling behind.
There are no lulls in January and battle-tested 49ers veterans like Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin waltzed into the Queen City with a self-assurance gained only from experience. On the other hand, it was plainly evident that Cam Newton and so many of his teammates were sticking their toes in the deep end for the first time.
Even Kaepernick, a young player taken in the 2011 draft just like Newton, had last year's Niners' Super Bowl run to lean on and completed 15-of-28 passes for 196 yards, bouncing back a bit from one of the worst performances of his career against the Panthers in the regular season.
The University of Nevada product was a miserable 11-of-22 for a season-low 91 yards with an interception, was sacked a career-high six times, and rushed for just 16 yards during San Francisco's 10-9 home loss to Carolina on Nov. 10.
With the stakes far higher this time around, Boldin, who earned a Super Bowl ring over San Francisco while in Baltimore a season ago, wasn't about to let his QB suffer through another performance like that. The veteran receiver was his usual big-game self, snaring eight catches for 136 yards while tormenting Carolina's defensive backs with his trademarked trash talk.
Gore, meanwhile, was rock solid as usual, running for 84 yards on 17 carries, including a signature 39-yard rumble on a key 3rd-and-short in the final quarter for the 49ers, who will now travel to Seattle next Sunday for the NFC title tilt against their NFC West rivals, the Seahawks.
"That was huge," San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said of Gore's run after the win. "It was a time in the game where we were trying to run clock. To pop it in those conditions is huge. Frank's got a way of doing that."
The always tough San Francisco defense, featuring perhaps the game's best front seven, also did its part, stymieing Newton throughout, intercepting the dual-threat twice, sacking him four times and stuffing him once on 4th-and- goal at the a 1-yard line, one of two goal-line stands for the unit.
"It was a real arm-wrestling type of a struggle," Harbaugh said. "I think facts are stubborn things. Keep them out of the end zone, that is a statement."
Newton was OK on the stat sheet, connecting on 16-of-25 passes for 267 yards while passing another 54 yards on the ground for the NFC South-winning Panthers.
Carolina's recipe for winning, though, is simple. Get the lead and let it's own top-tier defense take it home from there.
When the 49ers paired scores at the end of the half and beginning of the third quarter to jump out to a 20-10 edge, San Francisco's plane tickets for the Pacific Northwest could have been booked.
"We knew we didn't play that well in the first half," Kaepernick said. "We made some adjustments, executed better and did what we needed to do."
The only real soft spot on the Niners' defense is in the defensive backfield, especially with cornerback Carlos Rogers sidelined with a hamstring injury. The Panthers, however, lack firepower outside the numbers even when their best receiver, Steve Smith, is healthy and the he was playing on a balky knee.
In obvious passing situations, the San Francisco front was able to pin its ears back and make things very uncomfortable for Newton, who began to hesitate and hold on to the football, making any potential comeback virtually untenable.
It was painfully obvious that this was Carolina's first postseason appearance in years. The Panthers committed silly penalties early, started losing their composure when a few questionable calls went the other way, and responded poorly to the 49ers' attempts to antagonize them.
You got the distinct feeling that Carolina just didn't understand what it was in for here and once the Panthers got punched in the face, they were unable to counter to any significant degree.
"Some things happened out there," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "We don't want to be pushed around, but we do have to maintain our composure, and that falls on me as the head coach."
The lesson for Rivera, Newton and Co. is a simple one -- you can't create experience and you certainly can't capture it with repetitions in practice. In fact, many believe experience is the name we give our mistakes.
The Panthers made plenty of those on Sunday. So many that they might just be ready for San Francisco next January.
"I'm real disappointed, obviously, in what happened. How it came out," Rivera said. "But that's part of learning and growing and becoming a better football team and we'll learn from this ... We became a football team this year. This game is not indicative of what our season was about. We're going to get better. We're going to come back."
01/12 18:28:12 ET