The new version of the hottest in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers, came into Charlotte Sunday and whipped the Panthers 23-10, showing Carolina that 1) facing the hottest team in the league sucks and 2) this Panthers team just isn’t Super Bowl ready…yet.
Quarterback Cam Newton threw two interceptions, one on Carolina’s first drive and one with 4:43 on the clock in the fourth quarter. Newton’s final interception sealed the Panthers' fate and was a far cry from three separate games this season—Week 11 against the New England Patriots, Week 12 against the Miami Dolphins and Week 16 against the New Orleans Saints—where Newton led his team to last-minute, come-from-behind wins.
Newton wasn’t the only Carolina player that was off his game Sunday. In fact, there were times when he looked quite brilliant. He just didn't have enough of those moments, and had none when it truly mattered.
Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson combined this season for 26 sacks, but neither got to San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert gained 33 yards combined on 13 carries and had very little to do in the Carolina game plan. Newton was the Panthers' leading rusher with 54 yards on 10 carries.
Even though there were scads of individual players that didn’t play up to their regular-season level for the Panthers, it was a unit in its entirety that really failed the team: the defense.
Carolina entered Sunday’s game ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed with 86.9 per game. 49ers running back Frank Gore ran for 84 yards by himself. Running back Kendall Hunter added 27 and Kaepernick added 15 to give San Francisco 126 yards on the ground.
However, Carolina's secondary play was worse.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin torched the Panthers for 136 yards on eight catches. Tight end Vernon Davis only caught one pass, but it was a one-yard touchdown grab that gave San Francisco the lead right before halftime and stole all the momentum away from the Panthers.
The Carolina secondary not only showed it couldn’t slow down Boldin, but there were some brutal mental mistakes that cost the Panthers dearly.
Safety Mike Mitchell was called for unnecessary roughness on the 49ers' first drive of the game, a 3rd-and-6 incomplete pass where Mitchell came up after the ball had fallen and popped Boldin. The 49ers kicked a field goal four plays later—three points that San Francisco wouldn’t have had without Mitchell’s penalty.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was called just more than five minutes later for unnecessary roughness that gave the 49ers a much easier chip shot to go up 6-0. It can be argued that had neither penalty occurred, San Francisco would never have gotten on the scoreboard in the first quarter.
Josh Thomas was called for unsportsmanlike conduct in the fourth quarter, giving the secondary its third personal foul penalty of the game.
After the game, Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer reported that the members of Carolina’s secondary were blaming the officiating.
There’s a difference between being amped up and playing out of control, and the Panthers defensive backfield cost the team points and keep the defense out on the field longer than it should have been. The secondary made great strides on the field this season; now it's time to spend some time in the offseason channeling that fire away from reckless abandon into efficient and aggressive play.
When things were going well in the first half, the Panthers looked unstoppable. It was something akin to their eight-game stretch in the middle of the season where the team didn’t lose a game and knocked opponents around like a punching bag.
But the Davis touchdown right before the half killed Carolina’s momentum, and this inexperienced playoff team couldn’t find a way to get it back.
The defense struggled in the second half. The offensive line had trouble keeping Newton clean in the second half after protecting him well early. And the Panthers were held scoreless in the second half.
Would a team that was a little more battle tested in the playoffs have rebounded better in the final two quarters? Possibly.
Will the Panthers be better from this experience next season? Without a doubt.
“We became a football team this year,” head coach Ron Rivera said in his postgame press conference according to the Charlotte Observer. “This game was not indicative of what this season was about. I’m very excited going forward.”
There’s a lot to be excited about.
Newton had arguably his best season ever, and the growth he showed from 2012 to 2013—both as a quarterback and a leader—was enormous and of monumental importance.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly showed he should win a Defensive Player of the Year Award or two, possibly three, at some point. He and linebacker Thomas Davis give this defense a strength that will continue to grow under Rivera.
This team as whole grew as a unit, undivided under the leadership of “Riverboat Ron” and took great leaps to get to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Remember that 2008 was the last time Carolina reached the playoffs and the Panthers spent just over four seasons (71 games) dwindling under the .500 mark. To have made the strides these Panthers made during the 2013 season shows that 2014 could be a magnificent year.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.