In a somber Carolina Panthers locker room Sunday, no music played and there were no Ric Flair cheers – just a lot of hugs and some tears following a sudden end to a bounce-back season.
The Panthers’ first playoff appearance in five years unfolded like their last one: a home-field loss to an NFC West team and a quick postseason exit.
Quarterback Cam Newton threw two interceptions and the Panthers self-destructed with a series of penalties Sunday in a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in an NFC divisional round game at sold-out Bank of America Stadium.
The 49ers (14-4) avenged a November loss to Carolina to advance to the NFC Championship Game at Seattle next Sunday. Jim Harbaugh became the first coach since the 1970 merger to make it to a conference championship game in each of his first three seasons.
The Panthers (12-5) downplayed their lack of recent playoff experience all last week.
But personal foul penalties on defensive backs Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn led to field goals on San Francisco’s first two series.
The Panthers were penalized eight times for 73 yards, including five penalties that resulted in first downs. San Francisco only had two third-down conversions of any kind during a 10-9 loss to the Panthers on Nov. 10.
“I think there were some things that happened in the first half that really bothered me,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We lost our composure a couple times and they got inside our head.”
It was the Panthers’ first playoff appearance since a 33-13 divisional-round loss to Arizona on Jan. 10, 2009.
San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said the 49ers acted like they’d been here before.
“This is not our first time. We were not excited. We didn’t have Flo Rida coming in and playing at halftime and all those different things,” Whitner said, “because we expected to be here. We really felt like it was another game to us. I don’t know if it was their Super Bowl, but it was another game to us.”
In his first playoff game, Newton was sacked five times, threw the two interceptions and failed to connect with wideout Steve Smith in the final 2 1/2 quarters as the Niners rolled coverage to Smith.
Newton’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Smith, who was questionable with a sprained left knee, and a Graham Gano field goal gave the Panthers a 10-6 lead midway through the second quarter.
The lead could have been bigger: Carolina had two first-and-goal situations, and came away with 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. The Panthers later settled for a 24-yard field goal from Gano after again bogging down at the goal line.
The Panthers ran seven plays inside the San Francisco 8 and gained 10 yards, with 6 coming on one Newton rush.
“You get the ball on the 1, you’ve got to figure out how to score. They stopped us two different times down there,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “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.”
The other was the defensive penalties.
After going 17 possessions without a touchdown against the Panthers this season, the Niners scored on two consecutive drives bookended around halftime.
Carolina fans will be complaining about the first one all offseason – a 1-yard touchdown catch by tight end Vernon Davis, who initially was ruled out of bounds. The call was reversed on replay review, with officials determining Davis dragged his left foot inbounds while securing the catch.
Replays showed the 49ers with 12 players in the huddle before the play, which should have been a 5-yard penalty and would have given the 49ers a second-and-goal from the 6 with 14 seconds left.
Referee Carl Cheffers said he had not marked the ball ready for play when tight end Vance McDonald ran out of the huddle for the Niners sideline, although replays showed otherwise.
The Panthers’ defensive backs were more upset about the pass interference call on cornerback Drayton Florence on Anquan Boldin in the end zone, which gave the 49ers first-and-goal at the 1.
Davis’ touchdown gave the 49ers a 13-10 halftime lead and prompted booing from the sellout crowd as the teams left the field at the end of the half.
Mitchell still was seething about the officiating a half hour after the game.
“I told guys as soon as we got in here, ‘Remember this feeling and that team that we just played.’ Because we will see them again, and it’s not going to be sweet,” Mitchell said. “I can’t wait to play them with a new set of refs and a new game.”
After the Panthers went three and out on their first possession of the second half, San Francisco drove eight plays and 77 yards before quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran in for a 4-yard touchdown and a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
Boldin’s 45-yard catch was the big play on the drive and resulted from a miscommunication between Munnerlyn and safety Robert Lester, playing for injured Quintin Mikell.
and Lester was supposed to provide deep help to Munnerlyn. But the undrafted rookie thought the Panthers were in man coverage, and played the tight end.
“You can’t do that. It’s playoff football,” Munnerlyn said. “You can’t have those mistakes. Teams take advantage of it.”
The Niners took advantage with the touchdown by Kaepernick, who punctuated it by doing Newton’s Superman celebration before adding his traditional move – kissing his flexed biceps.
Kaepernick said it was “a little shout-out” to Newton, who refused to blame the Panthers’ problems on their playoff inexperience.
“It has nothing to do with inexperience. That has a lot to do with being careless and not holding yourself accountable, whether it’s a holding call, offsides call, personal foul, late hit or whatever,” Newton said. “Those guys didn’t make those penalties and we did.”
Despite being bounced early, Gross said he thinks any comparisons to this team – which won 11 of 12 after a 1-3 start – and the Jake Delhomme-led 2008 team are unfair.
“You don’t want to lose at home in the playoffs. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance here,” Gross said. “I just think this team’s so much better than that team was. The future is very, very bright, whereas at that point (after ’08) things started to go downhill.
“This team will be good for a long time.”