SANTA CLARA -- Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton are off and running.
A 23-20 win in the wild-card round by the 49ers over the Green Bay Packers served as a green light for Kaepernick, who rushed for a season-high 98 yards on seven carries.
The Carolina Panthers, champions of the NFC South, earned a first-round bye with a 21-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons to close out the regular season, in part because Newton had 12 carries for 72 yards, his highest totals of the season.
Both players have strong arms and evolving pocket passing skills that separate them from a new breed of physical freak quarterbacks.
Still, it is the ability of Kaepernick and Newton to create with their legs on improvisational scrambles or designed runs that could help decide Sunday at Bank of America Stadium whether the 49ers or Panthers advance to the NFC Championship game.
The two third-year players have remarkably similar statistics other than finishing with 12 regular-season wins.
Kaepernick (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) completed 58.4 percent of his passes (243 for 416) for 3,197 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 524 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
Newton (6-5, 245) completed 61.7 percent (292 of 473) of his passes for 3,379 yards, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He rushed for 585 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.
Kaepernick insists he doesn't treat the postseason any differently from the regular season in terms of putting himself in harm's way. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman wasn't interested in talking strategy this week but was clear in his intent regarding play-calling in January.
"I think Colin is prepared to tuck and run the ball if given the opportunity," Roman said. "I think we've all seen that. It's a do-or-die situation in the postseason, and if you hadn't noticed, we'll do anything it takes to win."
The steady yards Kaepernick got against the Packers, whom he torched for an NFL record (by a quarterback) 181 yards on 16 carries a year ago, will be harder to come by against a Carolina defense that has been stingy against quarterbacks who run the ball.
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said Green Bay has served as a "get right" game for Kaepernick -- he's excelled in wins over the Packers three times in a row -- and believes it will be much tougher going against Carolina in terms getting loose on running plays.
"One thing I've learned watching games from this perspective, is just because a player did something great one week doesn't mean it's going to be great the next week," Dilfer said.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson rushed for only 7 yards against Carolina when the teams met in the regular-season opener, and the most yards rushing yards by a quarterback against the Panthers' 4-3 defense was 44 by the New York Jets' Geno Smith.
Kaepernick had 16 yards rushing in a 10-9 loss to Carolina in Week 10.
"Any time you have a zone read team that has elusive quarterbacks, you have to stay in your gaps, take care of your responsibility," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said by conference call. "As long as you're paying attention, playing your responsibility, you can be in good position."
Newton, who had rushed for 741 yards in 2012 and 706 yards as a rookie, ran less often this season in part to keep him healthy.
"We try to be judicious and smart about it and not expose him to big hits," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said by conference call.
That strategy, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio believes, could be out the window in the postseason. Newton has 2,032 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns in three seasons, making him a weapon the Panthers won't be shy about using.
"When you have a quarterback of Cam Newton's ability in this type of game, I think he'll be asked to run maybe a little bit more than he would normally," Fangio said. "They may even call more of the quarterback runs for him, the quarterback powers and lead draws. We're anticipating more of those from them."
Dilfer, who evaluates hundreds of high school quarterbacks through his involvement in the Elite 11 program, believes Fangio and other defensive coordinators will be facing similar dilemmas in the coming seasons.
"The biggest, baddest dude is no longer playing wide receiver, tight end or defensive end, he's playing quarterback," Dilfer said. "We'll go to Texas this year, and there will be 30 kids that are 6-4 and above, 220 and above and can run in the mid-4.5s, 4.6s. They're everywhere."
NFC: New Orleans at Seattle, 1:35 p.m. FOX
AFC: Indianapolis at N. England, 5:15 p.m. CBS
NFC: 49ers at Carolina, 10:05 a.m. FOX
AFC: San Diego at Denver, 1:40 p.m. CBS
49ers (13-4) at Carolina (12-4), 10:05 a.m. FOX
Follow the game's twists and turns in real-time via the voices of our writers and others from Charlotte.
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