49ers vs. Panthers: San Francisco's Playoff Mettle Keys Move to NFC Title Game

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49ers vs. Panthers: San Francisco's Playoff Mettle Keys Move to NFC Title Game
Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick and Quinton Patton celebrate the quarterback's rushing touchdown and team's 20-10 lead.

In a matchup of Varsity vs. Junior Varsity-like proportions, the San Francisco 49ers showed off their playoff mettle in a 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers.

The stars of this otherwise professional, NFC title game-worthy production extend far and wide for San Francisco as well.

And for those seeking a quick fix, all of them might as well have materialized in back-to-back drives.

Let’s begin late in the second quarter of this divisional-round battle and summarize later.

The 49ers saw their 6-0 lead vanish instantly when Panthers quarterback Cam Newton hit Steve Smith with a perfect 37-yard pass for the go-ahead touchdown.

Carolina regained possession one minute later after just a four-play offensive series by San Francisco.

Newton and Co. methodically drove down to the 49ers’ 1-yard line for a 2nd-and-goal. Their three-headed rushing contingent seemed prepared to strike in short order.

Au contraire.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
49ers outside 'backer Ahmad Brooks wraps up Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for one of his 2.5 sacks.

Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks sacked Newton in the backfield following a dominant effort by the 49ers defensive tackles at the line of scrimmage. On to 3rd-and-goal.

After Brooks flew over the line for an encroachment penalty, NaVorro Bowman gained penetration and brought down the 245-pound Mike Tolbert for a one-yard loss.

Carolina’s fullback had been generally unstoppable in those situations.

The Panthers settled for a chip-shot field goal and slim 10-6 lead.

It was the 49ers’ second consecutive goal-line stand (more on this later).

Now it was the offense’s turn.

Colin Kaepernick overcame some inaccurate throws early on with a dogged perseverance.

The 49ers quarterback began by completing passes to Anquan Boldin for 12, 14 and 15 yards.

Fellow wideout Michael Crabtree overcame a setback of his own (wrist, shoulder ailments) and joined Boldin with an impressive first-down-netting catch for 20 yards.

With 10 rushing yards from Frank Gore and an eight-yard pass interference on Drayton Florence, San Francisco stood a mere stone’s throw away from touchdown pay dirt.

Enter: Vernon Davis.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Vernon Davis first looks Kaepernick's pass all the way into his hands.

Kaepernick extended the play by rolling out to his right, whereupon the All-Pro tight end Davis hauled in a highlight-worthy catch of these 2013 NFL playoffs.

Davis broke away from cover-savvy linebacker Luke Kuechly—a fellow All-Pro—and plucked Kaepernick’s pass out of the air while dragging his toes in the absolute corner of the end zone.

Touchdown.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
The 49ers tight end then keeps both feet inbounds as a beaten Luke Kuechly watches in disbelief.

(Well, following some Gore-taught footwork lessons, a Jim Harbaugh outburst and an extended video review.)

San Francisco owned a momentum-shifting 13-10 lead in the waning seconds before halftime.

This league’s most dynamic tight end capitalized on a scenario made possible by the tremendous efforts of his teammates who had shined up to that moment.

The 49ers then shut out Carolina in the second half and won by 13 points.

They moved on to the conference championship for a rematch with the Seattle Seahawks.

Story over?

Well, essentially yes. But let’s highlight the other contributors and moments from the more mature and superior 49ers.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Watch as Frank Gore leaves Panthers rookie safety Robert Lester in the dust on his 39-yard run.

Offense 

  • Wideout Quinton Patton gained 23 yards down the left sideline on 3rd-and-10. His tone-setting lone reception was the 49ers’ opening first down on the first drive of the game.
  • The rookie later showed Panthers veteran corner Josh Thomas the art of professionalism. He calmly walked away after Thomas’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty essentially ended it for Carolina. It was a microcosm of this entire game.
  • Kaepernick twice extended the chains on 3rd-and-1 via quarterback sneaks. He also pushed the lead to 10 points on a read-option, third-quarter touchdown run.
  • Boldin’s 45-yard catch to the Panthers’ 2-yard line set up his quarterback’s touchdown. He also nabbed “8 of 12 targets for 136 yards and seven of Kaepernick’s 11 passing first downs,” per ESPN Stats & Info.
  • The statisticians at ESPN further note that Kap completed six of eight passes for 136 yards (coincidence) on throws of 10-plus yards downfield. He finished with zero turnovers and a winning 71.9 QBR.
  • Crabtree battled through a banged-up shoulder and wrist for most of the day. He consistently occupied double-team coverage, which helped free up Boldin. Credit him with big-time, team-first maturity.
  • The offensive line allowed just one sack. Joe Staley and Co. kept Kaepernick upright and made up for their failed pass protection in Week 10.
  • Davis’ seven career postseason touchdowns are tied for the most by a tight end in NFL playoff history, per ESPN Stats & Info. He sits behind only Jerry Rice in 49ers’ postseason lore.
  • Gore waited patiently during his opening 12 carries for just 39 yards. His next attempt on 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter went for 39 yards—on one play.
  • It led to Phil Dawson’s third field goal and served as the offensive nail in the Panthers’ playoff coffin.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
49ers inside backer Patrick Willis works to secure his first-quarter interception.

 

Defense

  • Pro Bowl inside linebacker Patrick Willis intercepted Newton on Carolina’s first drive of the afternoon. It facilitated a 6-0 advantage after a Dawson field goal.
  • Willis and defensive tackle Ray McDonald later began the first of the 49ers’ two goal-line stops. They tackled the indomitable Tolbert for no gain on 3rd-and-1.
  • Brooks then further contributed to his game-changing status by stuffing Newton up the middle on 4th-and-goal.
  • The outside linebacker has half of San Francisco’s nine sacks this postseason. ESPN Stats & Info note that he is “tied for the most sacks by a 49ers player in a single postseason since sacks have [been] kept officially since 1982.”
  • Fellow All-Pro 'backer Bowman also had one sack and two tackles for loss. He and Willis tied for the team lead with 11 total tackles.
  • Rookie free safety Eric Reid broke up a pass and the 49ers forced a three-and-out on Carolina’s first series of the second half.
  • Bowman and Brooks’ back-to-back sacks of Newton on the Panthers’ next drive late in the third quarter pushed the opponents out of field-goal range. It was a gut-busting stop that Carolina could not overcome.
  • Despite being erased by a (bogus) roughing the passer penalty, backup linebacker Dan Skuta’s fourth-quarter sack rattled Newton for good.
  • Donte Whitner’s interception two plays later sealed the playoff win for the Red and Gold.
  • Out of eight plays inside the 10-yard line, Carolina did not produce a single touchdown, per ESPN Stats & Info. Incredible.
  • The “Smith Brothers” of Justin and Aldon consistently pressured Newton, stifled the run and collapsed the pocket all game long.
  • All told, the 49ers compiled two interceptions, five sacks and limited the Panthers to only 93 yards rushing (a meager 3.9-yard average).

 

Special Teams 

  • This unit was not especially effective. Yet, it did not lose the game for the 49ers.
  • (Ted Ginn Jr. had multiple 20-plus-yard returns, averaging 20.7 on kickoffs and 13.5 on punts. Dawson could not reach the end zone on numerous occasions. Punter Andy Lee and the coverage unit were below-standard.)
  • LaMichael James showed excellent judgment and did not fumble away any return opportunities.
  • The coverage unit held the dangerous Ginn out of the end zone.
  • Dawson converted both extra points and all three field-goal attempts.
  • His 49-yarder put San Francisco on the board in the first quarter. He later sealed the deal with one from 34 yards out.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Veteran kicker Phil Dawson extends the 49ers' lead to 23-10 over the Panthers.

The San Francisco 49ers certainly showcased a championship-caliber performance on Sunday.

They won the key battles of total first downs, rushing yards, red-zone scoring, penalties and turnover differential.

Even though Carolina technically held the ball for five additional seconds, 3:25 of their 30:05 came in fourth-quarter garbage time. The 49ers controlled the clock—and tempo—from the close of the second half until the close of the game.

And they finished off extended drives with touchdowns, not turnovers.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Ron Rivera embrace following the game. Harbaugh got the better of "River Boat Ron" on Sunday.

Overall, San Francisco systematically outcoached, outsmarted, “out-physicaled” and outplayed the formidable, yet inexperienced upstart Panthers.

Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio called a great game and cast aside outside distractions (i.e. head coaching vacancies).

They imparted that same steely focus onto their team.

Kaepernick successfully executed Roman’s pass-heavy schemes in the first half and appropriately deferred to Gore by throwing just four passes in the second (going 4-of-4).

It was a plan that negated Carolina’s ferocious pass rush outside of the first quarter.

Bowman and Willis led an inspired effort defensively—one that echoed Fangio’s cerebral approach to the game.

In this case, it was one that got in the head of playoff rookie Cam Newton. The defense rendered him completely ineffective over the final two quarters.

The 49ers proved they embody the true battle-tested persona by advancing to the NFC Championship for the third consecutive year under Harbaugh.

Now, will this translate into a win over Seattle in the ever-hostile CenturyLink Field?

Conventional wisdom might dictate to the contrary.

The Russell Wilson-led Seahawks are 16-1 at home over the last two seasons (postseason included). That also includes a 29-3 win this year and 42-13 domination over the 49ers in 2012.

Yet, recent history would point to the contrary of, well, the above contrary.

San Francisco is in the midst of an eight-game winning streak, with a 19-17 victory coming against the Seahawks on Dec. 8.

Said Whitner—the leader of the defensive secondary—to team insider Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:

We understand that we have to go [to] a hostile environment with a really good football team and do what a lot of people probably aren’t going to pick us to do. That’s OK with us. We understand what we have to do.

And what might that entail?

Said Kaepernick—the leader of the 49ers franchise—to The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows:

“We have to go out there and win it.”

Sounds simple enough.

Then again, one more win and the 49ers will reach their second Super Bowl in as many years.

 

Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16.

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