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49ers, Seahawks set for NFC showdown

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Well, well. We meet again.

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The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are all set for an NFC championship showdown in the latest chapter in one of the NFL's budding - and bitter - rivalries.

Colin Kaepernick threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score and the 49ers defeated the Carolina Panthers 23-10 on Sunday to advance to the NFC championship game for the third straight season.

They'll travel to Seattle next Sunday looking for a return trip to the Super Bowl.

And lots of hard hits and plenty of jawing can be expected. Perhaps even from the coaches.

''I think we're the two teams everyone was looking at from the beginning,'' Kaepernick said. ''It's going to be a knockdown, drag-out game.''

In the AFC, the New England Patriots (13-4) were waiting to find out if they would play the San Diego Chargers or Denver Broncos next Sunday.

The 49ers, who are 3 1/2-point underdogs for the NFC title game, have committed seven turnovers and been outscored 71-16 in their last two trips to Seattle, including a 29-3 Week 2 loss in September.

''We're a different team than we were the first time we played them up there,'' Kaepernick insisted.

The 49ers (14-4) will get a chance to prove that next weekend after Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards Sunday, avenging his worst statistical performance of the season two months ago against the Panthers. He was held to 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing in the first meeting with Carolina, a 10-9 loss at Candlestick Park.

Anquan Boldin had eight catches for 136 yards and Frank Gore ran for 84 yards on 17 carries, having their way against one of the NFL's top defenses.

On Saturday, Marshawn Lynch ran for a franchise playoff-record 140 yards and two touchdowns and Seattle's defense flustered Drew Brees and New Orleans in a 23-15 victory. The top-seeded Seahawks advanced to the NFC title game for the second time, and first since the 2005 playoffs.

''We haven't done anything yet,'' quarterback Russell Wilson said. ''That's our goal. We have 60 minutes of football left.''

Against a familiar foe.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh have been rivals dating to their days as opponents in the old Pac-10 conference.

In 2009, after Harbaugh's Stanford team ran up the score on Carroll's Southern California squad in a 55-21 rout, the two met at midfield and an annoyed Carroll barked, ''What's your deal?''

They've carried that over to the NFL - and it might get ramped up again during the week with a Super Bowl appearance on the line.

''We're healthy, we're a great team and we're willing to do whatever it takes to get that ring,'' Gore said. ''We're playing great ball.''

The 49ers held Cam Newton in check, intercepting him twice and sacking him five times while stopping the Panthers (12-5) twice on the 1-yard line in the first half. It was a rough playoff debut for the former Heisman Trophy winner.

Linebacker Ahmad Brooks stopped Newton on a fourth-down sneak early in the second. Later, Brooks vaulted over the line and past Newton - he was called for offside, but the 49ers showed the Panthers it wouldn't be easy.

At Seattle, Steven Hauschka kicked three field goals in blustery conditions, the Seahawks shut out the Saints (12-6) in the first half, got Lynch's first 100-yard game since Week 10 of the regular season and received a spark from the brief return of Percy Harvin before he left with a concussion.

Lynch scored on a 15-yard run in the first half and capped the victory with a 31-yard scoring run with 2:40 left that Carroll celebrated by jumping into offensive line coach Tom Cable's arms.

''It feels awesome,'' fullback Michael Robinson said, ''but this doesn't mean anything if we don't win next week.''

At Foxborough, Mass., LeGarrette Blount carried the Patriots to their third straight AFC title game with four touchdown runs in a 43-22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night.

The Patriots (13-4) would host the Chargers if Philip Rivers and San Diego beat Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. They'll head to Denver, though, if the top-seeded Broncos win Sunday.

''It's just a great achievement,'' Brady said. ''People have counted us out at times this year, but I think we've got a locker room full of believers.''

It's easy to see why after they forced Andrew Luck into throwing four interceptions and ran for six scores against the Colts.

Blount joined Ricky Watters, who had five touchdowns for San Francisco on Jan. 15, 1994, as the only players with four or more in a playoff game. The Patriots' six rushing touchdowns tied the 49ers' total in that game for second most in playoff history.

''We just had to keep our foot on the gas pedal,'' Blount said, ''and make sure that they didn't to us what they did to Kansas City.''

Last weekend, the Colts (12-6) pulled off a stunning 45-44 victory over the Chiefs in which they overcame a 38-10 third-quarter deficit in the wild-card game for the second-biggest comeback victory in NFL playoff history.

This time, there was no such come-from-behind performance for Luck and the Colts.

''It hurts when you can't go on, but the Patriots deserved to beat us,'' Luck said. ''They beat us fair and square.''

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AP Sports Writers Tim Booth, Janie McCauley, Steve Reed and Howard Ulman contributed.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

AP NEWS
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The Associated Press
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