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The 49ers' hopes of playing in the NFC Championship game for the third consecutive year rest largely on their ability to keep Kaepernick upright. It won't be easy against a defense that is equal parts raw ability and aggressive scheme, as devised by coordinator Sean McDermott and head coach Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker.

"Very sound. No, I'm not saying it's just pure talent," Harbaugh said. "It's a share, like I said. Definitely their scheme and their understanding of it, how it's coached, how they play together as a unit."

Much of Carolina's pressure converges from the outside, where Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson form what may be the best pair of defensive ends in the league. Johnson is stout and versatile; he had 11 sacks but is highly disruptive in the run game, too. Hardy may be in class by himself, both as a pass rusher and a talker.

Asked whether a case of bronchial asthma that kept him out of practice Monday might hinder him against the 49ers, Hardy replied: "No. Rain, sleet or snow, you know me. Broke hands, broke feet, whatever."

A former sixth-round draft choice who likes to refer to himself as the Kraken, Hardy tied Kevin Greene's single-season franchise mark with 15 sacks this season. He got Ryan four times in the season finale.

"Greg Hardy's a big, really athletic guy, real slippery," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. "When it seems like he's getting blocked, he finds a way to get off blocks and make plays. You got Charles Johnson on the other side -#8212; big, strong, physical guy, a real strong bull rush. And then those two guys inside (Star Lotulelei and Colin Cole) are playing at a real high level, and they got a lot of pass-rush moves, too, which you don't see a whole lot from defensive tackles."

It goes beyond those four, of course. Against the 49ers, it was backup defensive tackle Dwan Edwards who paced Carolina with two sacks. And the Panthers blitz effectively; in that Week 10 game, linebackers Luke Kuechly and A.J. Klein and free safety Mike Mitchell all made the sack sheet for the visitors.

"They mix it up, for sure," Staley said. "They do a good job of stunts ... three-man games or two-man games. And they're also just real talented pass rushers one on one."

Some teams wait until third-and-long to bring the noise. Against the 49ers, five of Carolina's six sacks came on first-and-10.

The question is whether the Niners can get their blocking scheme cleaned up Sunday. For all his gazelle-like speed, Kaepernick isn't the most elusive quarterback in the pocket. Things could get a little dicey if Hardy and Johnson are spending a lot of time draped around his waist.

Staley believes the 49ers already have ironed out some of their protection problems. More to the point, this is a different offense than the Panthers encountered in early November. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was still rehabbing an Achilles' injury in Week 10, and tight end Vernon Davis went out with a concussion in the second quarter.

In effect, Kaepernick had no open targets to throw to for much of the game. (The Niners' leading receiver that day was Mario Manningham, with three catches for 30 yards.) Kaepernick held the ball too long, and the Panthers made him pay.

San Francisco center Jonathan Goodwin wasn't willing to publicly blame those injuries for his line's poor performance. "Uhh, not necessarily," Goodwin said. "Of course, I'm sure it should help to get those guys back, but it's not gonna guarantee us anything."

Except perhaps a level playing field. That's the best the 49ers can wish for against a defense that frequently seems to be running downhill in its heated pursuit of the quarterback.

COACHING CAROUSEL: Courting of the 49ers' assistant coaches heated up Wednesday. ESPN reported that offensive coordinator Greg Roman interviewed in Chicago for the Penn State head-coaching position on Monday, and senior offensive assistant Paul Wulff confirmed to the Bay Area News Group that he will leave after the season to become offensive coordinator at the University of South Florida.

Harbaugh would not confirm either development.

INJURY UPDATE: Niners cornerback Carlos Rogers, who missed the Packers game with a strained hamstring, did not practice Monday. Back in North Carolina, Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith was limited at practice.

(You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.)