This one hurts.
Having a timely bye week, a home crowd to play with, and the all-black NFL’s Best Uniform of All Time, the Carolina Panthers had little to show for it. They played admirable, yet ugly. In some ways, the team exceeded expectations, but ultimately the team left its fans unsatisfied. A game marred with physical play, intensity, and penalties all around ended with the San Francisco 49ers victorious, 23-10.
Cam Newton, with four 4th quarter comebacks this season under his belt, did not have another in him, as he was stifled by the 49ers defense in the second half. He put up respectable numbers for his very first NFL playoff game. He was 16/25 and 267 yards passing, and he gained 54 yards on the ground. But two numbers proved to be the difference: 1) two interceptions that gave the Niners the ball at unfortunate times, and 2) zero rushing touchdowns given plenty of opportunities and his own personal guarantee that he would get it in.
His primary target, wide receiver Steve Smith, was a questionable, game-time decision, but he proved to be the gamer we all know and love. He finished with 4 receptions for 74 yards, one of which was a highlight 31-yard touchdown catch. His weapons in the backfield were rendered highly ineffective. Mike Tolbert managed a meager 20 yards on 8 carries, and DeAngelo Williams inexcusably had only 5 touches all game. Yikes.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was solid, but not spectacular when they were needed to. For one of the few times this season, the Panthers defense did not force a turnover. They forced pressure on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick early, but was not able to pressure or sack him in the second half.
Turning Point: To me, the game completely got away from the Carolina Panthers early in the 4th quarter. The Panthers just concluded the 3rd quarter with an 8 minute drive and no points to show for it. With the game still in the balance, and only a 20-10 deficit to battle back from, the 49ers seemed content to hand the ball off to running back Frank Gore and run valuable minutes off the clock. Time after time, the 49ers converted 3rd downs and killed clock in the process. But the Panthers thought they had them where they wanted them: a 3rd down and 1 on the San Francisco 34-yard line. Though everyone in the stadium knew it was going to be a run, Gore gashed the defense on a 39-yard run and took all the Panthers momentum with him. The drive would end up taking nearly 8 minutes off the clock and adding three points to the 49ers’ total. This would prove to be too much for the Panthers to overcome.
The Good: Remember when critics of the Carolina Panthers offense were railing on them for their lack of big plays? These explosive that were frequent occurrences under former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski came back for a game. Though it took some time to get it going, long passes to Steve Smith (one for a TD) and Greg Olsen kept this offense moving in chunks against a team that prides itself on its defense.
Credit also has to be given to Cam Newton. There was a big deal made prior to the game that the Panthers were 9-0 when Newton rushes the ball 7 or more times. Perhaps this coaching staff took it to heart, as Newton took the ball and ran 10 times. He took an awful lot of hits going up against the Niners defense, but it did not faze him. He was productive on the ground and in the air, and San Francisco had no answer for him. For his first NFL playoff game, I would say he exceeded many expectations.
The Bad: Yikes. There is a lot to cover here.
Let us start with goal-to-go offense. Given two drives for a total of 7 possessions at the goal line, they came away with only 3 points. While it did not hurt them much, it did set a tone for the game: that the Niners defense was not going to give up an inch. It took the wind of the Panthers sails, and a little of the energy in the stadium. While credit must be given to the defense, equal amount of criticism should be given to offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Although the Niners were "stout" in the middle, it did not stop him from calling run after run after run up the middle for no success. I am hardly a NFL-caliber playcaller, but if a play does not work repeatedly, I would not try it again.
And how about those refs? Maybe it was because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was in attendance, but the refs seemed to call the game in the Niners’ favor. They started the game calling a "unnecessary roughness" penalty on Mike Mitchell, though no blow to the head occurred. This followed by a harmless "headbutt" call on Captain Munnerlyn. They missed a call when Anquan Boldin did the same thing. And finally, they missed a "12 men in the huddle" call on the 49ers on a key moment in the game that led to a touchdown before halftime. It is petty to blame the referees on a blowout loss, but they definitely had an impact on the game.
Panthers Offensive MVP: Cam Newton. He had two terrible interception in this game, and it may have given to game to San Francisco. But he was the engine to this Panthers train today. He was sharp, accurate, and able to get the tough yards on third down when the team needed them. Honorable Mention: Steve Smith.
Today’s game was a tough loss for this Panthers franchise and its fanbase after a season of chills and thrills. They gave us everything over the duration of the year, even though hopes were dim after a 1-3 start. But wins against San Francisco, Monday Night against New England, and a comeback against New Orleans in the rain, will be highlights we always remember. This team was a scrappy bunch, consisting of many castoffs and 1-year veteran deal players that stuck through and made Carolina doubters into believers.
Overall, we can nitpick the refs, the chippiness of the 49ers, and how annoying Anquan Boldin and Colin Kaepernick are. But I think, today, the better team won. I know this, though: after this magical season, and potential they showed in their first playoff game, Cam Newton and this team will be back in the playoffs again before you know it. Cheers to an incredible 2013 season in which this edition of the Carolina Panthers maximized their talents to the fullest extent, but fell just short.
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