The Carolina Panthers’ first playoff appearance in five years unfolded just like their last one – a home-field loss to an NFC West team and a quick postseason exit.
San Francisco twice stuffed the Panthers near the goal-line and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick outplayed counterpart Cam Newton to lead the 49ers to a 23-10 victory in an NFC divisional-round game Sunday at sold-out Bank of America Stadium.
In his first playoff game, Newton threw two interceptions and couldn’t connect with wideout Steve Smith in the final two-and-a-half quarters.
The Panthers (12-5) lost their third consecutive playoff game, including a 33-13 home loss to the NFC West’s Arizona Cardinals in 2008. The last win was a divisional-round victory over Chicago in 2005.
Carolina’s inexperience in playoff games was a theme of the week, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera discounted that as a factor.
“I don’t think it was an issue,” Rivera said. “This (49ers team) was a group of players that had been in that situation, and they handled it better than we did.”
San Francisco (14-4) will play at Seattle on Jan. 19 in the NFC Championship Game. It’s the third time in as many seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh the 49ers have advanced to the title game.
The Panthers led 10-6 in the second quarter, but did little offensively after that, and the 49ers’ offense found its stride.
Smith, who was questionable with a sprained left knee, gave Carolina a 7-6 lead on a 31-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter.
Smith was targeted four times in the first half, and had four catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. But he did not have a catch and was targeted only once after the midway point of the second quarter.
Rivera said he never doubted Smith would play.
“Steve’s a dynamic football player, and he’s going to show up.” Rivera said.
San Francisco receiver Anquan Boldin, one of Baltimore’s postseason heroes last season, caught eight passes for 136 yards. Kaepernick threw for a touchdown and also ran for one.
After going 17 possessions without a touchdown against the Panthers this season, the Niners scored touchdowns on two consecutive series bookended around halftime.
Panthers’ fans will be complaining about the first one throughout the offseason – a 1-yard touchdown catch by tight end Vernon Davis, who was initially ruled out of bounds. The call was reversed on replay review, with officials determining that Davis dragged his left foot inbounds while securing the catch.
Replays showed the Niners with 12 players in the huddle before the play. But officials did not see it, and didn’t call a penalty, which would have backed San Francisco to the 6.
Davis’ touchdown gave the Niners a 13-10 halftime lead, and prompted booing from the sellout crowd as the teams left the field at the end of the half.
San Francisco added to the lead on their first second-half possession, driving eight plays in 77 yards before Kaepernick ran in for a 4-yard touchdown and a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
Kaepernick mocked Newton by doing Newton’s “Superman” celebration in the end zone, before doing his traditional move, kissing his flexed biceps.
The Panthers had plenty of chances in the first half, but twice were stuffed near the goal line. Carolina had two first-and-goal situations, and came away with only three points.
Niners linebacker Ahmad Brooks stuffed Newton for no gain on fourth-and-goal at the 1 on the first play of the second quarter.
Later in the second quarter, the Panthers settled for a 24-yard Graham Gano field goal after again bogging down at the goal line.
The Panthers ran 7 plays inside the San Francisco 8 in the first half and gained 10 yards, with 6 of those coming on one Newton rush.
“You get the ball on the 1, you’ve got to figure out how to score,” Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “They stopped us two different times down there. We’re normally a very good goal line, short-yardage team, and we weren’t today. That was a big, big part of why we lost.”
Rivera, in response to a question, said he wouldn’t second-guess the playcalling.
“We believe in what we do,” he said. “I’m not going to second-guess anything that we did, this year or before,” Rivera said. “We’re going to learn from it.”
San Francisco took advantage of a pair of personal foul penalties on the Panthers on the 49ers’ first two drives to grab a 6-0 lead.
Free safety Mike Mitchell extended the Niners’ first drive when he was penalized for unnecessary roughness on a hit on Davis. Kaepernick had thrown an incompletion on third-and-6 from the Panthers’ 40 before Mitchell’s penalty moved the chains.
On the Niners’ next series, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct for head-butting 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree.
The Panthers were penalized eight times for 73 yards in the game, including three personal fouls. The 49ers had five penalties for 40 yards.
“We lost our composure a couple of times, and it got inside our heads,” Rivera said. “We don’t want to be pushed around, but we do have to maintain our composure, and that falls on me as the head coach.”
San Francisco offensive lineman Alex Boone said the chippiness didn’t surprise him.
“It’s playoff football,” he said. “It gets chippy, between two great teams. I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Despite Sunday’s loss, Rivera said a lot of good came out of the season. His team started 1-3, but rallied to win the NFC South and earn a first-round playoff bye.
“We became a football team this year,” Rivera said. “This game was not indicative of what this season was about. I’m very excited going forward.”
His players, though, were not satisfied with Sunday’s outcome. Several were noticably emotional as the doors to the locker room were being closed to the media.
“I know we had a great season, but it’s playoff football, I want to win,” Munnerlyn said. “At the end of the day we didn’t win.
“I know coach will say we had a good season and a couple guys said we had a good season. But I don’t look at it like that. We’re packing our bags early and we didn’t get to our goals.”
Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/01/12/4606101/49ers-eliminate-panthers-from.html#.UtMrMNJDu3I#storylink=cpy
SF—FG Dawson 49, 9:12.
SF—FG Dawson 33, 4:33.
Car—S.Smith 31 pass from Newton (Gano kick), 13:40.
Car—FG Gano 24, 3:41.
SF—V.Davis 1 pass from Kaepernick (Dawson kick), :05.
SF—Kaepernick 4 run (Dawson kick), 8:53.
SF—FG Dawson 34, 7:35.
|Total Net Yards||315||325|
|Time of Possession||29:55||30:05|
RUSHING—San Francisco, Gore 17-84, Hunter 9-27, Kaepernick 8-15. Carolina, Newton 10-54, Tolbert 8-20, D.Williams 5-13, LaFell 1-6.
PASSING—San Francisco, Kaepernick 15-28-0-196, Boldin 0-1-0-0, Lee 0-1-0-0. Carolina, Newton 16-25-2-267.
RECEIVING—San Francisco, Boldin 8-136, Crabtree 3-26, Patton 1-23, Gore 1-8, Tukuafu 1-2, V.Davis 1-1. Carolina, Ginn Jr. 4-104, S.Smith 4-74, Olsen 4-55, LaFell 4-34.