The NFC and AFC conference championships are set with Sunday's playoff games concluding an eventful weekend in the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Carolina Panthers, while the Denver Broncos withstood a late rally by the San Diego Chargers, to narrow the field to four teams with Super Bowl XLVIII looming on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
The Niners will face the Seattle Seahawks, their NFC West nemesis in recent years, after defeating the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, 23-10. San Francisco's defense shut out Carolina in the second half, and a fourth-quarter interception by safety Donte Whitner on the 49ers' nine yard line prevented the Panthers from staging a late-game comeback.
Running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the way for San Francisco. Gore rushed for 84 yards on 17 carries, including a 39-yard dash on third down and one yard in the fourth quarter that helped set up a field goal. Kaepernick completed 15-of-28 passes for 196 yards, finding wide receiver Anquan Boldin for all but 60 yards.
The 49ers will visit Seattle on Sunday to face the Seahawks, who dominated them at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 15, 29-3. Both teams are very familiar with each other's style of play, and it is expected to be a fierce battle.
"I think we're the two teams that everybody was looking at from the beginning," Kaepernick said. "It's going to be a knockdown, drag-out game."
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In the AFC, the Broncos owned a 17-point lead entering the fourth quarter, but a late-scoring run by the Chargers was not enough as Denver held on, 24-17, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen caught two touchdown passes from 16 yards out to give San Diego life, however the Chargers defense could not slow down the Broncos on the final possession, as quarterback Peyton Manning and running back Knowshon Moreno led Denver's time-absorbing drive as time expired.
Manning completed 25 of his 36 throws for 230 yards, including two first-half touchdown passes, while Moreno rushed for 82 yards and one touchdown off 23 carries.
Denver's win sets up a much-anticipated duel between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks when the Patriots' Tom Brady battles with Manning in the Mile High city.
"It's the Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot," Manning said. "But when you get to the AFC Championship, it's about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there."