Taking the extended route from the NFC Wild Card Round, star quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the mighty San Francisco 49ers managed to advance past their second straight playoff opponent on the road, this time toppling the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
People doubted they could survive the sub-zero temperatures in Green Bay. Then they doubted they could handle the physical punishment by Carolina. And both times, the 49ers persevered.
Now it's on to the NFC Championship for a third year in a row under coach Jim Harbaugh and a second consecutive time behind the 26-year-old dual-threat weapon behind center. With their consistency and playmaking ability on offense, combined with a tenacious defense, the Niners look like they can defeat anybody, anywhere, anytime.
Following this most recent statement win over one of the NFL's toughest defenses and promising young quarterbacks, we'll examine some of the takeaways for San Francisco going forward.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com's Game Center, unless specified otherwise.
The 49ers began the game with two straight red-zone drives that resulted in two Phil Dawson field goals.
The acceptable play calls still left something to be desired, while there were also a few head-scratchers peppered in.
Going on three years now, this is an area where the offense has struggled mightily. This team cannot consistently score in tight goal situations, often settling for three points.
In Week 10, this is how the Panthers got past San Francisco, even though the 49ers began with a 9-0 lead.
By the looks of things early, this game was going to pan out the same way. Fortunately, the fierce 49ers defense stepped up, there was a bit more balance offensively in the second half, and San Francisco did just enough to maintain a lead.
If one innate defect is going to sneak up and bite them in the postseason, it’s this one.
The 49ers have had to go on the road for two consecutive weeks, taking on hot teams in the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers.
Both teams were believed able to steal a win against the visiting 49ers, largely because critics doubted Colin Kaepernick’s abilities while being enamored with the talent and star power of quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton.
Well, in two tries with a roster that is finally at full strength, Kap sunk them both.
Whether it was the frozen tundra in Lambeau or the hostile environment in Charlotte, the Niners proved they could handle it.
They haven’t lost many games on the road since Jim Harbaugh took over, and they've proven to be clutch in the playoffs. They don’t wilt or perform uncharacteristically, and they've played like one of the best travel teams in the NFL. If there is any team equipped to survive three consecutive road games en route to a Super Bowl, including a visit to CenturyLink, it is the 49ers.
Let's be honest; San Francisco’s trademark is toughness.
The 49ers intimidate and physically wear down their opponents over four quarters each week. It’s a big part of what they do and why they’re successful. Setting the tempo makes that much of a difference.
On Sunday versus Carolina, the 49ers were at risk of losing that particular battle.
One of the main reasons is because San Francisco’s pass protection has proven to be susceptible in the middle.
Teams have been able to stunt and overload the middle, getting past the center and guards. This stuns the run game and puts Kap in danger. Overall, the 49ers have to do a better job winning in the trenches.
Fortunately, few teams have proven to be as resilient as San Francisco.
Resilience and persistence were how the team was able to climb back into this ballgame and finish strong, as it has time and time again.
Linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis had 11 tackles apiece, with Bowman picking up a key sack and Willis making an interception. These two were all over the place in this game, making their presence felt.
But on top of these two All-Pros, the sleeper and perhaps star contributor was left outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who had a heck of a performance versus this Carolina offense again. The veteran hitter finished with six tackles, 2.5 sacks, a tackle for loss and three QB hits.
Outside the numbers, Brooks’ most noteworthy impact for the 49ers on Sunday was being the man to make a play on not one, but two goal-line stops.
Meanwhile, the numbers from All-Pro rush linebacker Aldon Smith were relatively low, though he was getting pressure on Cam Newton and forcing errant throws. Altogether, the 49ers linebackers accounted for 31 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six QB hits, an interception and multiple hurries.
This unit looks like the NFL’s best every week.
For 16 weeks of the regular season, the 49ers proceeded with a relatively conservative game plan on offense.
Oftentimes, it resulted in close games and got them in a bit of trouble. But most dismissed it or gave San Francisco a pass because the Niners have been known not to reveal their entire hand before the playoffs.
To be frank, the idea was always that the staff had been conserving key parts of the playbook for the postseason, when they could effectively spring it on the opponent and give themselves a strategic advantage. Many wanted to believe this is why they had not been living up to their potential offensively.
So far, in two close games, there have been no new wrinkles on offense.
Whether it was increased use of the read-option, new wrinkles in the run or innovative roles for running back LaMichael James or wide receiver Quinton Patton, nothing has differed from their regular-season approach.
The 49ers have not won by a lot the past two weeks. They may need to do a bit more if they are to get by Seattle.
In 2011 and 2012, the 49ers were at a tremendous disadvantage because they could not rely on a second wide receiver. Not one.
They had their top wideout, their tight end and their go-to running back, but the one missing link seemed to be a second proven receiver who could shoulder the load if the surrounding cast was locked up.
Experiments with wideouts Braylon Edwards, Kyle Williams and Randy Moss did not help much on the field, but San Francisco’s latest acquisition, Anquan Boldin, has finally settled the position.
Though Kap couldn’t find anything else, there was always Boldin.
The veteran baller and team’s reigning 1,000-yard receiver racked up eight big-time grabs for 136 yards and several first downs. His catches often set up scores. Only 60 yards went to other pass-catchers the entire day. In the end, he accounted for 69.4 percent of Colin Kaepernick’s total passing yardage.
Anquan Boldin is making the difference for this team in 2013, correcting one of its biggest shortcomings in the past two postseason runs.
For the third time in three years under coach Jim Harbaugh and his new regime, the San Francisco 49ers have made it to the NFC Championship.
This is a incredible feat.
The coach was able to take all of this unrealized talent and potential, implement a scheme, connect with the players and field one of the most consistent football teams in America. The job he did was nothing short of remarkable.
And each year, the team has improved and gotten closer to the ultimate goal: a Lombardi Trophy.
It seems the team has all the pieces in place personnel-wise, but what makes it all possible is Harbaugh at the forefront of this team.
Very rarely is this team off its game, and since they've been back to full strength, the Niners been one of the tougher teams in the NFL, going 8-0 in their latest stretch (including the playoffs). They've been able to overcome tremendous odds, winning all sorts of games, whether they were ugly slobber-knockers or convincing blowouts.
Perhaps best of all, they travel well.
The 49ers are scheduled to play in the NFC title game versus the Seattle Seahawks, and they should be as conditioned as any team to get this win. And with one of the NFL's most spectacular head coaches, San Francisco has a real shot.
Talking about weaknesses the 49ers have covered up—such as the special teams coverage, field-goal kicking and having a second WR—another big fix is on the deep part of the field with strong safety Donte Whitner.
This past offseason, a significant part of his regimen was zeroed in on improving as a coverage safety, which would finally complement his hard-hitting ability.
In that regard, Whitner has certainly succeeded.
His turnaround as a coverage safety has been tenfold, really making him the complete package back there. Wide receivers running deep are still afraid to enter his zone, but now quarterbacks have to be cautious throwing near him. Whitner's play has been heads-up and technically sound, which greatly strengthens this unit as a whole.
With Donte Whitner's improvements, opposing offenses are going to have to find a new way to attack the 49ers defense.