It's what they've been waiting for


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Donte Whitner isn't one to hold back.

Moments after the San Francisco 49ers manhandled the Carolina Panthers 23-10 on Sunday to advance to their third straight NFC title game, this time against NFC West rival Seattle, I asked the outspoken safety to characterize the 49ers-Seahawks' rivalry.

"They don't like us. We don't like them," Whitner said. "The ultimate goal of the Super Bowl is on the line. You'll see two physical football teams duke it out next week."

And it should be something to see. It will be physical. It will be nasty. Players will play to the whistle, and players will play through the whistle. The coaches? They'll be fired up and demonstrative and emotional, even more so than usual.

Want more? This NFC championship game Sunday night in Seattle, where the Seahawks have lost just one game in two seasons, will have it all, and it will make the Niners-Panthers game look tame, even though it was not.

This entire season, dating back to the offseason, seemingly has been building for this moment: Seattle-San Francisco, Take III. The two franchises have been traveling on parallel tracks. They are almost carbon copies of each other. They both have coaches who came to them from the Pac-12. They both have young, mobile quarterbacks. San Francisco traded for Baltimore wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the offseason. Seattle countered by trading for Minnesota wide receiver Percy Harvin.

One team cuts a low-level player. The other picks him up. Rinse. Repeat.

Both teams are brash. Both teams have moxie. Both have stingy defenses. The Niners are convinced they have the best front seven in football. The Seahawks are convinced they have the best secondary. Both get after the quarterback.

And both win.

No team is hotter in the NFL right now than the Niners, who have won eight straight, including two consecutive road games in the playoffs. The past three Super Bowl champions have had to play on wild-card weekend, and if that trend is to continue this year, San Francisco will have to deliver. It is the only team entering the conference championships that didn't have a first-round bye and has had to play on the road.

Not that the Niners care. They actually seem like they like it that way.

Against the Panthers, being on the road wasn't much of an issue. Both sides were chirpy early. Both sides talked smack.

On San Francisco's opening drive, Panthers safety Mike Mitchell was flagged for unnecessary roughness when he leveled Niners tight end Vernon Davis after a Colin Kaepernick incompletion. On San Francisco's second drive, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was flagged for unnecessary roughness after head butting Niners receiver Michael Crabtree. It was a call that really could have gone either way.

Twice in the first half, Carolina got to within the Niners' half-yard line. Twice San Francisco kept the Panthers out of the end zone. Carolina got zero points from one drive, three from the other. The Niners oozed confidence.

"Facts are stubborn," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said. "You keep them out of the end zone on the goal line. That is a statement."

San Francisco led 13-10 at halftime. While rapper Flo Rida performed during intermission, the Niners players promised each other in the locker room that they would win the battles up front on both sides of the ball in the second half.

And they did. The Niners were the more physical team. They were the more aggressive team. The offense scored 10 points in the second half and the defense pitched a shutout, and with that San Francisco was headed to its destiny.

"We expect this," Whitner said. "We've been here. This is not our first time. We're not excited. We don't have Flo Rida coming in playing at halftime [and] all those different things, because we expect to be here. … I don't know if it was their Super Bowl or not, but it was just another game to us.

"Until we get back to the Super Bowl and bring that trophy home, we're going to take all these games just like another game."

That means next Sunday, too.

"The team's excited about moving on," Harbaugh said. "This is a tournament, much like playground basketball: Winners stay and play, losers go home. We want to keep playing."

Seattle and San Francisco split its regular-season games, with the Seahawks winning at home in Week 2, 29-3, when the Niners were without Crabtree and Davis got hurt. San Francisco won at home in Week 14, 19-17, with a team that more closely resembles the one it has now.

It should be fun. It should be heated. It should be close. Each team knows the other so well: coaches, players and front-office executives. And there is no love lost.

"It's going to be pretty chippy," San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley said. "I think the refs are going to be ready for it, and they'll know it. That's just playoff football. Everybody's trying to go hard and sometimes you don't hear the whistle. Sometimes you do.

"It's do or die, and you've got to go until the absolute last second, and everybody knows that."

It is the NFC championship game, but it is more than that. It is Seattle-San Francisco, Take III. Win or go home. What could be better than that?