The Carolina Panthers' players should have been crossing their fingers, hoping that San Francisco 49ers' kicker Phil Dawson's 33-yard field goal as time was expiring went outside the right field goal post. Instead, it squeezed its way inside the right upright to give the 49ers a 23-20 Wild Card Round victory over the Green Bay Packers.
This doesn't bode well for Carolina.
The Panthers, owners of the NFC's No. 2 seed, have already beaten the 49ers in San Francisco this season, winning a hard-hitting 10-9 matchup. However, this isn't the same 49ers team that the Panthers played against earlier this year. As of now, this might be the most dangerous team in the playoffs.
The 49ers and the Panthers are very similar teams: They each finished the regular season 12-4, both have young mobile quarterbacks who have displayed their dominance on several occasions throughout the year, each of them have a consistent running game that can wear down a defensive front and both defenses are led by fast, physical inside linebackers.
The only difference between these two teams is postseason experience.
The Panthers are a young team who just climbed into the NFL's elite this season. Quarterback Cam Newton is only in his third year and this is the first time he's seen playoff action. The Panthers have just nine players on their roster who were on the team when Carolina last made the playoffs five seasons ago.
The 49ers are not an old team, by any stretch of the imagination, but they have players who have experienced the NFL Playoffs and how tough it is to compile a winning streak against the most talented teams in the NFL. They went to the NFC Championship two years ago and lost in the Super Bowl last season.
More importantly for the 49ers, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is starting to build himself quite a playoff resume. In four postseason games, Kaepernick is 3-1 and has combined for eight touchdowns.
Kaepernick was key in San Francisco's win in Lambeau Field this past Sunday. In frigid temperatures, offense was sure to be at a premium. While Kaepernick's statistics aren't exactly eye-popping, he made plays when it counted most. Using his mobility, he was able to escape the pocket and make plays in the open field, breaking the hearts of Packers fans in the process.
Though a first-round bye and a home field game in the Divisional Round is something teams strive for, it hasn't been the formula for Super Bowl success over the past three years. The last three Super Bowl winners all played in the Wild Card Round and rode momentum all the way to the NFL's promised land.
Is it possible that a bye in round one could destroy any momentum the Panthers brought into the playoffs?
Perhaps. We'll see about that this weekend.
However, it's obvious that momentum has taken its place on the coattails of the 49ers heading into what should be another physical spectacle in the second round of the playoffs.