The last time these two teams faced each other, they combined for just 19 points on the strength of two of the best defenses in the league. Statistically, the teams are almost mirror images of each other. Both went 12-4. The Panthers finished 29th in passing while the Niners finished 30th but both finished among the top rushing offenses in the league. Both teams also finished among the top five defenses in the league as well.
Really, though, these two teams couldn’t be more different. The Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 while the Niners are in the postseason for a third straight year. The Panthers put up their first winning season in five years while the Niners are coming off a Superbowl bid last season. In theory, the Panthers shouldn’t even be here after starting the season 1-3 in a division that houses 2012 powerhouses like the Saints and Falcons but, after winning 11 of their last 12, defeating Frisco, New England, and the Saints in the process, Carolina has proven that they belong among the league’s elite squads.
The Niners came into this game hot as well after winning seven straight games, including wins over the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Packers. They remained hot on their first possession of the game as Colin Kaepernick led a six-minute, 13-play drive but Luke Kuechly and the Carolina defense stood strong and forced a 49-yard Phil Dawson field goal. 49ers 3, Panthers, 0.
Cam Newton took over for the first playoff snaps of his young career and went the way many young quarterbacks have this postseason as he was picked off by Patrick Willis while trying to connect with Brandon LaFell.
The 49ers took over at the Carolina 46-yard line and the game got physical. With confrontations during and after the play through the entire short drive, the Panthers D put up big red zone stop and held the 49ers to another field goal as Phil Dawson nailed a 33-yarder. 49ers 6, Panthers 0.
Newton looked much better on the next possession, starting with a big 28-yard pass to Steve Smith that set up a good-looking 65-yard drive. The Niners came up with a big stop on 3rd-and-Goal from the one-yard line, though. Ron Rivera, whose team had converted nine of their previous 10 4th-down attempts, went for it but Ahmad Brooks shot through the line to stuff Cam Newton just short of the endzone to force Carolina’s second turnover over the half.
The Panthers’ defense swarmed all over the Niners, forcing a three-and-out at the three-yard line. Ted Ginn returned the punt for 24 yards to set up the offense at San Francisco’s 31-yard line. On the very next play, Newton launched a bomb to Steve Smith in the endzone for one of few Carolina Panthers highlights to put up the Carolina’s first points and take the lead. Panthers 7, 49ers 6.
The Panthers forced another quick punt, as Mike Mitchell and the defense swarmed Kaepernick once again. Newton looked locked in as ever, leading a 12-play, 73-yard, eight-minute drive. But the Niner defense, again, threw up a huge goal line stop on 3rd-and-Goal and held Carolina to a 24-yard field goal. Panthers 10, 49ers 6.
Kaepernick finally got some breathing room behind the line on his next possession and led a strong 12-play, 79-yard drive capped off by a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in the corner of the endzone (that was inexplicably called out of bounds but then reversed to a score upon review) to put the 49ers up going into halftime. 49ers 13, Panthers 10.
This was clearly the defensive battle it was billed as, particularly on the ground. The Panthers held Frank Gore to seven carries for just 17 yards through the first half while the Niners held DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert to seven carries for 13 yards. Colin Kaepernick struggled until the last drive of the game, only completing 11 passes on 24 first-half attempts for 121 yards and a score. Meanwhile, Cam Newton, despite the early interception, completed eight of 10 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown.
The Niners forced a three-and-out on Carolina’s first drive of the second half. Kaepernick took over and picked up right where he left off. Kaep completed a big 45-yard pass to Anquan Boldin and then ran in the touchdown himself to cap off a 77-yard drive. 49ers 20, Panthers 10.
Newton looked stronger as he led a 13-play drive that lasted over seven minutes but the Niners sacked him on back-to-back plays to push the Panthers back and force a punt.
Up by two scores, the Niners ran down the clock as Frank Gore broke off a 39-yard run en route a 12-play, 73-yard drive that took seven minutes. The Panthers were able to come up with a big red zone stop, however, holding the 49ers to another field goal as Phil Dawson nailed a 34-yarder for his third of the game. 49ers 23, Panthers 10.
Newton responded with a 62-yard drive and took the Panthers all the way to the 49ers 28 before being picked of by Donte Whitner with just over four minutes left on the clock to essentially put an end to any chances the Panthers had at a comeback. The San Francisco 49ers won 23 to 10.
The 49ers will face the Seattle Seahawks next week in the NFC Championship. The two NFC West rivals split the season series with Seattle dominating in Week 2 to win 29-3 at home but the Niners squeezed out a 19-17 win at home in Week 14. The Championship game will be held in Seattle where the Seahawks have only lost one game in the last two seasons.