The San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers were supposed to be evenly matched teams going into Sunday’s divisional playoff showdown. The Panthers second ranked defense had allowed only 12 points a game at home this year, where they finished with a 7-1 record. Their only home loss came four months ago in the season opener against Seattle, 12-7, a narrow defeat to a Seahawks team who would end up with the NFL’s best record. The Panthers had won 11 of their final 12 games and were flying high coming into Sunday’s game. This was going to be a demanding 60 minutes of playoff football. After those 60 minutes expired, the 49ers had passed the test with flying colors. They showed they had more playmakers on both sides of the ball and were mentally and physically superior to Carolina.
The 49ers offense, while not dominant, was methodical. The offense held the ball for 11 minutes and 35 seconds of the fourth quarter, leaving Panthers QB Cam Newton to stand on the sideline and watch the 49ers clinically kill off his teams season. Frank Gore closed the game out in typical workmanlike fashion, the decisive run coming with 12:27 left in the fourth quarter of a 10 point game. On 3rd and 1 from the 49ers 34, Gore took a handoff and patiently knifed his way through the Panthers secondary for a 37 yard gain. This allowed the 49ers to melt another five minutes off of a rapidly dwindling clock and set up a Phil Dawson field goal. This put the 49ers up 13 points with just under eight minutes left and completely took the air out of Bank of America stadium.
In the last three games the 49ers passing attack has featured a steady Colin Kaepernick and a pick your poison scenario at wide receiver. Each week it’s a different wide out having a field day in the opponent’s secondary. The last three games have featured Anquan Boldin with 9 receptions for 149 yards versus Arizona. Michael Crabtree had 8 catches for 125 yards in the wild card round against the Packers. Then Boldin once again had a huge day Sunday, snagging 8 balls for 136 yards in Carolina. Few NFL teams can boast that much talent in their number one and two receivers. Opposing defenses have clearly tried to take one of them away, resulting in the other making a huge impact. The 49ers offensive line also deserves a large part of the credit for the passing games’ success. The o-line gave up six sacks and were manhandled in the first meeting between the 49ers and Panthers this year. They stepped up to the challenge on Sunday however, allowing only one sack and giving Kaepernick time in a mostly pristine pocket to cycle through his progressions.
On the defensive side of things, the Panthers were able to move the ball with relative ease in the first half. Their biggest play being a flawlessly thrown 31 yard TD pass from Newton to the veteran Steve Smith. This would be the only time the Panthers would reach the end zone on the day. They ran seven plays inside the 49ers 10 yard line and only came away with three points. The 49ers front seven won all of the battles when backed up against their own goal line. On fourth down from the one yard line, Newton tried to use every bit of his 6 foot 5 inch 245 pound frame to sneak over the goal line, but was knocked backwards by OLB Ahmad Brooks, who lined up on the inside for the first time in recent memory. On the next possession, the Panthers found themselves in a third and goal situation inside the 49ers one yard line. This is most definitely Mike Tolbert territory. Justin Smith launched Carolina’s left tackle into Tolbert, throwing the fullback for a one yards loss and forcing the Panthers into field goal formation on 4th down.”Riverboat” Ron Rivera was left with the choice of either coming away with three points or risking the embarrassment of running eight plays inside San Francisco’s ten yard line and having nothing to show for it. These particular battles won at the line of scrimmage were instrumental in winning the war.
In the second half Carolina wouldn’t have to worry about their goal line offense as the 49ers defense turned up their effort to a championship level. When the Panthers did get a rare opportunity to see the field, they had to scratch and claw for every yard and every first down. After a 12 play drive in the third quarter, the Panthers found themselves on the 49ers 29 down 10 points. Already in long field goal range the Panthers were poised to make it a one score game. A second down sack by Navarro Bowman off of a beautiful spin move and a third down sack by Brooks repelled Carolina’s attack and they were forced to punt. The Panthers ran 15 plays, held the ball for eight minutes and 20 seconds and came away with no points , killing half the third quarter and their hopes of a comeback.
On Sunday the 49ers faced a red hot Panthers team who finished the season 12-4 and were the second seed in the NFC. They traveled 3,000 miles to play the dreaded (for west coast teams) 10am game. They handled everything that came their way. They were the better, faster, stronger team. They won the battle at the line of scrimmage and they had more playmakers on the outside. They won through the air until they needed to close the game out on the ground, which they did with relative ease. They won with a ferocious pass rush that shook Cam Newton until he cracked and threw the game ending interception. When it was all said and done, the 49ers had stared the Panthers in the eyes and not blinked. They ended up winning going away by 2 touchdowns. After five of the last six 49ers playoff games have come down to the last seconds, a decisive victory was a welcome change. The playoff road has been an arduous one up until now. It only gets tougher this week.
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