The San Francisco 49ers entered the postseason as the hottest team in the NFL, and that positive momentum keeps pushing them forward, beating the Carolina Panthers 23-10 on the road with an almost flawless defensive performance while their offense led by Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore once again did just about enough to make it through.
The 49ers now advance to their third consecutive NFC championship game which will once again be on the road, playing in Seattle against the Seahawks, where they’ve lost badly on their last two visits. However, momentum and adjustments seem to be something the 49ers have on their side, promising a bit more parity when they meet up for the third time this season with their NFC West rivals.
Instead of focusing on how the 49ers got by a team they struggled against in the regular season, too much talk was made of Colin Kaepernick pulling off the “Superman” celebration from Cam Newton. Maybe Kaeprnick, his head coach and generally this team aren’t the classiest of groups in NFL history, but it really shouldn’t take away anything from their incredible achievement and consistency – not just this season, but in general since Jim Harbaugh took over, becoming the first head coach to lead a team to the conference championship game three years in a row.
Kaepernick himself didn’t have a great game: 15-of-28 for 196 yards and a touchdown throw; he ran 15 yards on 8 carries, also scoring a touchdown. The Panthers defense did pull their end of the bargain, and showed Kaepernick to be an ordinary quarterback. But the key is not making mistakes, and making the right decisions when it matters. Kaepernick might not be blazing the field with 30-40 yard bombs one after the other, but he took what was given to him, was sacked only once (tremendous job by the offensive line) and like the rest of his teammates, managed to get under the Panthers skin.
Cam Newton was sacked five times as his offensive line crumbled in the second half. Except for that big completion to Ted Ginn in garbage time, the 49ers denied pretty much everything the Panthers tried to do in the second half. The game was lost when Carolina failed to get anything from their presence inside the 49ers’ 10. The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line during the game and did not score a touchdown, and didn’t score at all after Ron Rivera preferred kicking on 4th-and-goal from the 7 with 3:41 left in the first half.
Frank Gore did a good job running the ball and eating up the clock; Anquan Boldin did exactly what he was brought over to do with 8 receptions for 136 yards, but it was the defense, putting incredible pressure on the Panthers, that deserves most of the credit. Justin Smith and Patrick Willis who were everywhere all at once, while Ahmad Brooks and Navorro Bowman who easily got to Newton time after time. That much pressure got to the offensive line and to Newton himself, as he was 1-for-4 for 9 yards and both interceptions when under duress.
The Panthers lost their head and cool very early on, with personal fouls hurting them in key moments. The 49ers? They’re heading into their third consecutive road game in this postseason with plenty of confidence in their ability to overcome anything, and put their abysmal appearances in Seattle behind them, feeling they have the right blend to change the script.