The third game of the divisional playoffs had the San Francisco 49ers heading east again to play the Carolina Panthers. The 49ers were coming off a 23-20 win over the Packers in frigid Green Bay and the Panthers were coming off a bye week. There was nothing frigid about the weather in Charlotte. It was sunny and in the mid 50s with a light breeze. Carolina kicker Graham Gano sent the opening kickoff through the end zone and the 49ers started at their 20-yard line. On third and ten from the 20, quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked to his left and found wide receiver Quinton Patton for a gain of 20 yards. A five-yard carry by running back Frank Gore and an eight-yard pass to Gore netted a first down at the Carolina 44. On third and six from the 40, Kaepernick threw to his right for wide receiver Anquan Boldin. The ball was tipped and fell incomplete. However, safety Mike Mitchell was flagged for unnecessary roughness. That got the 49ers a first down, but they went no farther. As a matter of fact, Kaepernick was sacked for a loss of seven yards on third down. Kicker Phil Dawson came on and his 49-yard attempt was good and the 49ers led 3-0 with 9:12 to go in the first quarter.
The Panthers started at their 20 and on second and eight, quarterback Cam Newton completed a six-yard pass to wide receiver Steve Smith. On third and two, Newton completed another short pass to tight end Greg Olsen for a first down at the 34. From the 34, Newton hooked up with wide receiver Brandon LaFell for seven yards. On second and three, Newton looked for LaFell again but the pass was thrown behind him and picked off by linebacker Patrick Willis. There were three Panthers in the general area of the pass, but Willis still came away with the interception.
The 49ers had good field position at the Carolina 46. On second and eight, Kaepernick dumped off a short pass intended for tight end Vernon Davis. The pass was incomplete, but linebacker Luke Kuechly was flagged for defensive holding. That gave the 49ers a first down at the 44. The zebras weren’t done throwing their flags either. On the next play, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was flagged for unnecessary roughness to give the 49ers yet another first down at the 20. The drive was halted at the 15 and Dawson was called on again. His 33-yard kick was good. With 4:33 to go in the first quarter, the 49ers led 6-0.
Dawson kicked the ball short and it was fielded at the Carolina 18 by running back Kenjon Barner and returned to the 34. Newton went deep for Smith on first down and that play was good for 28 yards. A seven-yard carry by running back DeAngelo Williams and a 14-yard pass to Ted Ginn moved them down to the 17. Newton ran up the right side for 11 yards and the Panthers found themselves with a first and goal from the six-yard line. Big fullback Mike Tolbert got the call on first down and gained three yards. Newton kept it on the next play and gained two more yards. On third and goal from the one, Tolbert once again was unsuccessful at finding the end zone. The Panthers decided to go for it on fourth and about one foot from the goal line. The attendance for this game was 73,784 and I’m pretty sure all of them knew that Newton was going to run the ball up the middle. Add 11 more people to that number. When the ball was snapped, every player in a white jersey did their best to clog the middle and stop Newton from scoring. It worked and he was stopped short of the end zone. Why not try a bootleg? Maybe sell a play fake and toss it to Olsen? Unimaginative play-calling led to zero points for the Panthers.
The 49ers went three and out and punter Andy Lee hit a nice 52-yard punt that was fielded by Ginn at the Carolina 45 and returned to the San Francisco 31-yard line. On first down, Newton fired a perfect strike to the left for Smith who caught it in stride for a touchdown. Gano made the point after and the Panthers led 7-6 with 13:40 to go in the first half.
The 49ers gained 20 yards on their next possession and punted again. Ginn fielded it at the 17 and tried to escape, but could only get three yards on the return. Three scrambles by Newton and a six-yard pass to LaFell moved the Panthers to the 47. A 35-yarder to Olsen, a nine-yard pass to Smith and a short run by Tolbert had the Panthers knocking on the door again. Newton ran up the left side and was brought down at the one-yard line. On second down, Newton was stuffed for no gain. Before the ball was snapped on the next play, linebacker Ahmad Brooks did his best impression of a bird as he jumped over the line and Newton. That was an obvious offside penalty and moved the ball a little closer to the goal line. Tolbert had no luck gaining any yards on third down and the Panthers decided to try a field goal on fourth down. A delay of game moved them back five yards, but Gano had no trouble making a 25-yard field goal and the Panthers led 10-6 with 3:41 to go in the first half.
The 49ers started at their 20 and a five-yard carry by Gore and a 12-yard pass to Boldin moved them to the 37. On second down, Boldin caught another pass for 14 yards. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree got in on the act and hauled in a pass for 20 yards and a first down at the Carolina 29. Another five-yard run by Gore and a 15-yard pass to Boldin made it first and goal from the nine. After that play, safety Quintin Mikell was injured and did not return to the game. Every time Boldin made a catch, he talked a little louder. After that previous catch, he started chirping again and slammed his helmet into Munnerlyn’s helmet. Doesn’t that qualify as a head-butt? Shouldn’t there be a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct? Taunting? Guess not.
On third and goal from the nine, Kaepernick floated a pass to the right side of the end zone for Boldin. The pass was incomplete, but cornerback Drayton Florence didn’t turn around to look for the ball. As I saw that, I started to count. 5…4…3…Boom! There’s the flag! It was now first and goal from the one. Gore was stopped for no gain on first down. On second down, Kaepernick rolled to his right and tossed a pass to Davis in the end zone. Initially it was ruled incomplete, but replay showed he had possession and got both feet down for the score. After the pass was ruled incomplete, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh stormed the field in protest of the call. He was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct that was enforced on the kickoff. Harbaugh, didn’t you have a procedure done last year for an irregular heartbeat? It was inside of two minutes and that means that every play will be reviewed from the booth. Just calm down and stop whining. You’re acting like a damn child. If you keep having these emotional explosions, you’re going to be in a straightjacket before the game is over. After all that went down, Dawson made the point after and the 49ers led 13-10 at halftime.
The Panthers needed to get back on track with a good drive to start the second half. That didn’t happen and punter Brad Nortman got off a 51-yard punt that was fair caught at the San Francisco 23. Some more tough running by Gore and a 16-yard pass to Boldin moved the ball to the Carolina 47. Kaepernick looked for Boldin once again and he hauled it in for a gain of 45. On first and goal from the two, Gore and Kaepernick weren’t on the same page during the exchange and the ball came loose. Gore pounced on it and the 49ers retained possession. I’d hate to see what Harbaugh would have done if Carolina recovered the fumble. On second down, Kaepernick kept it and ran up the left side. He dodged a couple of defenders and made it into the end zone. Dawson made the point after and the 49ers increased their lead to 20-10 with nine minutes to go in the third quarter.
The Panthers really needed to get some points on this drive and they started at their 24-yard line. Passes to LaFell and Olsen and some scrambling by Newton had them moving in the right direction. On second five from the San Francisco 48, Newton went deep for Ginn, and the pass fell incomplete. But the 49ers were flagged for defensive holding. That moved the ball to the 43 and gave the Panthers a first down. On third and one, Newton completed a five-yard pass to LaFell and the Panthers were looking good. They were looking good until the 49ers stepped up their pass rush. After an incomplete pass on first down, Newton was sacked by linebacker NaVorro Bowman for a loss of eight yards. On third down, Newton had room to run up the middle, but didn’t move quickly enough and he was sacked by Brooks for another eight-yard loss. That put them out of field goal range and really hurt their chances of getting back into the game. They had control of the ball for 8:20 and came away scoreless.
Nortman punted and the 49ers took over at their 12. Another score would most likely put the Panthers away. On third and two from the 20, the Kaepernick and Boldin connection came through again and Boldin caught another pass for five yards and a first down at the 25. Two carries by Gore netted nine yards and on third and one, Gore got loose for a gain of 39 yards. He was finally dragged down by Mitchell and Florence at the Carolina 27. The drive would stall at the 15, but they held on to the ball for almost eight minutes and took precious time off the clock. Dawson came on again and made his 33-yard field goal attempt. With 7:35 to go in the game, the 49ers led 23-10.
All the Panthers could do now was hope for the best and cope with the rest. Starting at the 23, Newton completed passes to LaFell and Ginn, but he was also sacked two more times. They moved down to the San Francisco 28, but when Newton looked for Olsen, his pass was picked off at the nine by safety Donte Whitner. The Carolina faithful started to head for the exits as that pretty much ended any hopes of the Panthers heading to Seattle. The 49ers ran out the clock and advanced to the NFC championship game for the second straight year.
For the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 for 196 yards and one touchdown. He added a rushing touchdown and finished the game with 15 yards on eight carries. Anquan Boldin had himself a good day and led the 49ers in receptions with eight and receiving yards with 136. On the ground, the 49ers rushed for 126 on 34 carries. Frank Gore led the way with 84 yards on 17 carries. Their defense came up huge when it needed to with two big goal line stands. Defensively, they sacked Newton five times and Bowman, Willis and Brooks tied for the lead in solo tackles with five apiece. Brooks also had 2.5 sacks.
For the Panthers, Cam Newton completed 16 of 25 for 267 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also led the team in rushing with 54 yards on ten carries. Ginn, Smith, Olsen and LaFell each had four receptions and Ginn had the most receiving yards with 104. As a team, the Panthers rushed for 93 yards on 24 carries. Defensively, linebacker Thomas Davis led the team in solo tackles with four. They had plenty of opportunities in this game. Simply put, they couldn’t find a way to score from the one-yard line on two different occasions.
Whenever the 49ers and Seahawks get together, you can expect an intense game with lots of trash talk. I expect that’s what will happen Sunday when they meet at 6:30 eastern time to determine the winner of the NFC.