Posted January 12, 2014

First Down/Fourth Down: 49ers’ defense leads the way to playoff win over Carolina

Carolina Panthers, First Down/Fourth Down, NFC South, NFC West, NFL Playoffs, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers made life miserable for Cam Newton (center), sacking him five times and twice picking him off.

The 49ers made life miserable for Cam Newton (center), sacking him five times and twice picking him off. (Simon Bruty/SI)

The Carolina Panthers played up Sunday as a chance to silence their critics. The situation was a similar one for Cam Newton, in his first appearance on the postseason stage.

All of that may have overlooked just how dominant the San Francisco defense can be when it’s on its game.

Just as in a 10-9 loss to the Panthers earlier this season, the 49ers made life for Newton absolutely miserable. They sacked Newton five times (2.5 by Ahmad Brooks) and picked him off twice, almost all the while — save for a Newton-to-Steve Smith touchdown pass — stifling what’s been a dangerous Carolina attack. The Panthers missed a couple of opportunities early, which set the stage for the 49ers’ relentless pass rush to overwhelm Newton’s offensive line down the stretch.

It was the 49ers’ linebacking corps of Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis that dominated, as it often has done over the past two seasons. Willis supplemented Brooks’ terrific day with an interception and 11 tackles of his own; Bowman chipped in another 11 tackles (two for loss), plus a sack.

The Panthers’ surprising 2012 turnaround was sparked in large part by their front seven, and namely second-year LB Luke Kuechly. He had 10 tackles and an emphatic sack of Colin Kaepernick on Sunday. But the Carolina front seven was just second-best in this one, by a significant margin.

More observations from San Francisco’s impressive 23-10 win:

First Down: Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.

Not that anyone needs this reminder, but Boldin was one of the driving forces behind Baltimore’s Super Bowl run last season. He’s in the midst of performing his magic again, with Sunday’s eight-catch, 136-yard performance the latest example.

Having Davis alongside him in the passing game certainly doesn’t hurt. The Panthers actually took Davis almost completely out of the game Sunday. Emphasis on “almost.” Davis, who scored 13 TDs in the regular season, turned his lone grab in this one into a tip-toeing, 1-yard touchdown grab, which erased a 10-6 deficit and put his team ahead for good.

Fourth Down: Officiating.

Lather, rinse, repeat on the NFL’s officiating problems. Unfortunately, the men in stripes stepped back into the spotlight Sunday with a series of questionable decisions. In the first half alone, the refs called Carolina for a headbutting personal foul, only to turn their backs on a similar infraction from Boldin; initially ruled Davis’ touchdown catch incomplete, forcing the 49ers to throw the challenge flag; may have a 12-men-in-the-huddle violation on the 49ers just prior to that Davis TD; and flagged Mike Mitchell for a critical personal foul on a bang-bang play early.

Late in the game, head ref Carl Cheffers briefly kept Carolina’s comeback hopes alive with an absolutely absurd 15-yard flag on San Francisco’s Dan Skuta — Cheffers said that Skuta hit Newton helmet-to-helmet on a sack attempt, ignoring the fact that Newton spun directly into the tackle.

The league has to be crossing its fingers that an erroneous call does not decide a playoff game. It’s looking less and less likely that will be true.

First Down: Steve Smith.

Smith was deemed questionable to play all week as he worked his way back from a knee injury. The veteran receiver seemed no worse for the wear Sunday, especially early. He finished the game with four catches for 74 yards and his team’s lone touchdown — a great one-on-one grab in the end zone off an even better pass from Newton. Only Ted Ginn Jr.’s meaningless 59-yard reception late prevented Smith from leading his team in receiving yards Sunday.

Fourth Down: The Panthers’ red-zone plan.

This game never had the makings of a shootout, so getting points when they were on the table was a must. And the Panthers definitely left a few out there.

Their first trip into the red zone ended when San Francisco bowed up for a goal-line stand, with Brooks stuffing Newton on a 4th-and-1 QB sneak. That misfire was negated somewhat by what happened next: Carolina stopped San Francisco, then Newton hit Smith for a touchdown. The Panthers’ second botched red-zone attempt loomed larger. After Newton and then Mike Tolbert were stuffed from the San Francisco 1, the Panthers took a delay-of-game penalty and kicked a field goal.

Rather than lead 14-6, the Panthers’ edge was a mere four points. San Francisco then wrestled away the lead before halftime and added to it early in the third quarter.

Not once in six plays inside the San Francisco 5-yard line did Carolina move Newton out of the pocket, nor did it attempt any passes. Head coach Ron Rivera has earned a reputation as a gambler — “Riverboat Ron” being his nickname — but the play calling by he and offensive coordinator Mike Shula left something to be desired.

First Down: The NFC West.

The best division in football now has the last two teams standing in the NFC playoffs. Though several other teams painted themselves as contenders — Carolina, New Orleans, Green Bay, Philadelphia, even Chicago, Detroit and Arizona for a spell — the general consensus was that the Seahawks and 49ers were on a collision course for this conference’s championship.

And here we are: with the two heated rivals set for what might be a battle for the ages next Sunday in Seattle. The 49ers had to claw their way into the playoffs a little harder than did the top-seeded Seahawks. Now that they’re here, they look capable of finishing the job they started last season before falling just short against the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

Fourth Down: Divisional-round drama.

The wild-card round was a thrill a minute. This weekend has been a letdown by comparison, with only the Saints-Seahawks game coming down to the final seconds — and New Orleans needed a touchdown and onside kick recovery to even have a slight prayer in that one.

This game had the potential to be a memorable knock-’em-down affair. Even at the half, with San Francisco clinging to a 13-10 lead, there was the hope that the teams would take it down to the wire. The 49ers pulled away instead — essentially running out the clock for much of the second half.

18 comments
ChristopherBogart
ChristopherBogart

I guess the Panthers didn't read the memo that you play hard for 60 mins not just 2 quaters. They came out with this huge chip on their shoulder trying to prove they were the tougher team and got their assses handed to them. There was a moment on the sidleine even before the shot of a team mate consoling Cam. Cam was on the sidelines and 49ers just kicked a feild goal that made it 23-10 and Cam already looked defeated.

George
George

So much for pooperman-the-narcissist and "riverboat" ron - 


:D  ... go find somewhere to pout, lil' cammy.

Voiceover310
Voiceover310

Niners D played very well, but it looked like Carolina just flat out didn't care whether they won or lost. Newton looked like he was just going through the motions cause he had to. I expected a better game then what took place. 

Ken14
Ken14

Number of points scored by Carolina in the second half?----0.  Number of goal-line stands by the 49ers keeping the Panthers out of the end zone? 2  The amount of time the Panthers used up on one drive that ended with two consecutive sacks, and failed to score any points? Over 8 minutes.  Number of times Steve Smith was pounding his chest, (during his four catches on the day), instead of returning to the huddle so his team could continue their "drives"? 2 or 3.  I lost count, but they were impressive spectacles of individual display.


Bottom line, the Forty-Niners' defense shut out the Carolina offense cold after the Panthers scored their field goal with 3:41 left in the first half, leaving Newton and company with only 10 points for the entire game.  The Niners eventually put 23 points on the board against a good Carolina defense.  Late in the game, I noticed a Panther player getting into Kaepernick's face after Kap had lost six yards on the Carolina 15 yd line, keeping the Niners from scoring another TD.  All Kap did, (in retaliation), was point to the scoreboard.  Classic.   

pvraymo
pvraymo

Action, not words.  So much for all of the Panther woofing on every play.   Love the shot of SCam pouting as a teammate tried to chat him up  after the loss.  Was the best "Superman" TD celebration of the year too.   Hope they Niners keep up against sneaky Pete and the piped in noise.

zekenotfromcabincreek
zekenotfromcabincreek

Too bad about Newton's 4th Quarter interception.   Couldn't happen to a nicer or more humble guy. 

juan.triumph1
juan.triumph1

I don't know how many more times i want to see Cam Newton sulking like a baby on the sidelines.

The guy may be the best teammate in the world when things are well, but man he is painful to watch when they are losing.

Attitude dude.

Holland
Holland

Great job Niners!!! Ice down and relax for next season Steve Smith!

ianforbes
ianforbes

Baltimore not re-signing Bolden was probably the single most dumb move after last season. They guy put them on his back last year and then they flipped him the bird. Now he's having the last laugh and Flacco is golfing

JohnAlport1
JohnAlport1

"The league has to be crossing its fingers that an erroneous call does not decide a playoff game. It’s looking less and less likely that will be true."


This HAS ALREADY HAPPENED !!!


The totally incorrect last-minute call against Ahmad Brooks on his tough clean sack of Drew Brees was caused by Brees lowering his upper body into the tackle. Take a look at the film on youtube or anywhere else.   At no time does Brooks' helmet hit anywhere on Brees.  At no time does Brooks hit Brees' head.  Brooks' right forearm, aiming to tackle Brees' chest, goes under Brees' chin and onto his neck because Brees lowers his body.  A totally clean hit that makes this a great game.  The fact that Brees' head did a whiplash move is testimony to how hard the hit was, but says nothing about the hit being illegal.

The sack caused a fumble, recovered by SF, and SF would have simply run out the clock for a win.  Instead, NO was given 15 yards, new life, and scored to win the game.


Because of this, SF went 12-4 instead of 13-3.  At 13-3, and 1-1 vs. Seattle, SF wins the NFC West Division on the 2nd tiebreaker, a 5-1 division record vs. Seattle's 4-2 division record.  So the NFC title game would be in SF.  In my opinion, Seattle's unusual home-field advantage is worth about 9 points.  SF's home-field advantage is a typical 2 points.  So this terrible call by the refs has given one team 11 points in the NFC championship game.

Antonio Yellowbike
Antonio Yellowbike

The 49ers coudn't throw the challenge flag on Davis' TD, there was only 5 seconds left in the half.  Harbaugh rushed onto the field to argue, got flagged for conduct, but a booth review overturned the no-catch call.

mkmck69
mkmck69

@pvraymo Really! I can't remember seeing a team do so much mouth-running when they haven't done (or won) a damn thing. Maybe if they concentrated more on the game and less on the woofing, they might have had a little better outcome. Shut the hell up and play.

AllThingsConsidered
AllThingsConsidered

@ianforbes Agreed 100%. I can't think of another guy who ever brought some much value for so little money than Boldin to the 49ers. Bad move by Baltimore.

schmitty42
schmitty42

@Antonio YellowbikeHarbaugh ran onto the field to let them know they let 5 seconds tick off the clock after they called it incomplete. Clock was at 10 seconds when the play was over, but they let it go to 5 seconds. He wasn't arguing the catch. If it hadn't been overturned the Niners would have had to kick a FG, instead of getting a 3rd down play at the 1.