CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Frank Gore had run for only 39 yards until he doubled that output on a fourth-quarter carry that helped seal the 49ers' 23-10, divisional-playoff win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

On third-and-1 at the 49ers' 34-yard line, Gore burst through traffic at the line of scrimmage and reached the Panthers' 27 before getting tackled. That put the 49ers well within range for Phil Dawson's third field goal of the game, and most important, that drive soaked up nearly eight minutes.

"I've never seen anybody pop big runs like Frank Gore does when there's nine, 10, 11 men in the box," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.

Gore finished with 84 of the 49ers' 126 rushing yards. His 632 all-time playoff yards moved him past Steve Young (594) for second most in 49ers history behind Roger Craig (817).

Part of Gore's motivation was to conquer Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who unseated the 49ers' Patrick Willis on The Associated Press' All-Pro first team next to NaVorro Bowman.

"I take my hat off to No. 59 (Kuechly), he's a great player, but I wanted to show everybody that we have two of the best linebackers in the league," Gore said.

Last week in practice, Gore played a behind-the-scenes role in preparing Vernon Davis for Sunday's go-ahead touchdown catch. Gore threw an array of passes to Davis on the side, and Davis credited those sessions for his fancy footwork on a 1-yard TD catch 5 seconds before halftime.


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"We'd be on the sideline when the defense was practicing," Gore said. "I'd say, 'You want to be great. Let's do this.' Then I'd make crazy throws -- low, high, one-hand (catches), behind him. We're just trying to get better."

  • Starting fullback Will Tukuafu is believed to have sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and will undergo an MRI on Monday, a league source said.

    His status for Sunday's NFC Championship game is unknown, although 49ers guard Mike Iupati missed four games with an MCL sprain earlier this season.

    Tukuafu didn't return after injuring his knee while getting tackled on a third-down reception on the opening drive. He re-signed with the 49ers last month and has served as their primary blocking back in the wake of Bruce Miller's season-ending shoulder injury. Anthony Dixon has split time with Tukuafu in the fullback role.

  • Michael Crabtree had just three receptions for 26 yards, but it was his 20-yard catch to the Panthers' 29 that stoked the 49ers' go-ahead touchdown drive just before halftime.

    "Whenever Kap threw the ball up, I was going to make a play," Crabtree said.

    The pocket collapsed on Colin Kaepernick as he was throwing to Crabtree in single coverage over the middle.

    "I really didn't see him catch it, but I knew I had an area that I wanted to get the ball to, and he made a great play," said Kaepernick (15 of 28, 196 yards).

    Crabtree suffered a shoulder injury on the game's opening series but dismissed its potential impact on the next game.

  • The 49ers defense produced a second-half shutout for the first time since a 13-6 win over Seattle on Oct. 18, 2012.

    "As the game goes on, we wake up on defense, and we play harder, play stronger," said Bowman, whose 11 tackles shared team-high honors with Willis.

    Safety Donte Whitner added: "We made up our minds at halftime that we were going to enforce our will, and we did."

  • The Panthers' Cam Newton shrugged off Kaepernick's imitation of Newton's "Superman" celebration after a third-quarter touchdown run.

    "That's not the first nor will it be the last time somebody does that," said Newton, who ran for a team-high 54 yards and passed for 267 yards (16 of 25).

    Newton said the only thing that surprised him about the 49ers defense was that Carlos Rogers (hamstring) did not play for a second straight game. Willis and Whitner each had an interception.

  • Bowman and Ahmad Brooks sacked Newton on back-to-back plays to thwart a third-quarter drive in 49ers territory. Brooks accounted for half of the 49ers' five sacks. Dan Skuta drew a roughing-the-passer penalty for making helmet-to-helmet contact on his sack.

  • Harbaugh's grandfather, Joe Cipiti, died Sunday morning in Ohio at age 98. "He had a great life," Harbaugh said. "He was really trying to hang on these last few weeks, hang in there for the Super Bowl. A great man, put family first.

    "But I think he was proud that he's the only grandfather who had two grandsons coach in the Super Bowl. My mom was with him a lot these last weeks. Just a good, good man."

  • The 49ers attempted a fake punt in the final minute, but Andy Lee threw an incomplete pass short to Kassim Osgood. "We had that in our arsenal and told Andy to throw it," Harbaugh said. "He throws a lot better in practice."

  • Davis' seventh postseason touchdown catch tied him with Raiders legend Dave Casper for most all-time among tight ends.

  • Panthers safety Quintin Mikell did not return after injuring his right foot 47 seconds before halftime.

    For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.