Playoff Experience plus Defense Pays Off- The San Francisco 49ers have their defense to thank for making their third straight trip to the NFC Title Game possible. Two first half goal-line stands which held the Carolina Panthers to a combined three points were a big key in the 49ers 23-10 victory in Charlotte, NC Sunday. Holding off a huge Carolina first half surge which could have netted more points than the defense allowed, the 49ers were able to put the Panthers away in the second half thanks to two long offensive drives that combined ate up 12 ½ minutes. Colin Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards while clutch receiver Anquan Boldin caught eight passes for 136 yards. Frank Gore carried the ball 17 times picking 84 more yards. Vernon Davis had only one catch on the day but it was a huge one. Davis’ catch was a touchdown reception with :05 to go in the second quarter gave the 49ers a three-point lead after a booth review corrected an officials missed call on the field. With the win the 49ers get a rubber match with the arch rival Seattle Seahawks next Sunday in the NFC Title game with the winner advancing to Super Bowl 48 at the Meadowlands.
First Half Story/Two Goal Line Stands- The 49ers took the opening kickoff and were able to move the ball effectively on the Panthers defense early. The red and gold put together a 13 play drive picking up 49 yards along the way. The 49ers benefited in this drive from a ill timed penalty by the Panthers Mike Mitchell who was flagged for unnecessary roughness for hitting Davis after a play (which was an incomplete pass to Boldin on a third down) was over. This gave the 49ers an extra set of downs. After the Panthers were able to get a third down sack on Kaepernick, Phil Dawson came in and drilled his first of three field goals on the day from 49 yards out. Dawson would kick his second field goal of the day later in the opening quarter, a 33 yard try capping a six play 49ers drive following Patrick Willis’ interception of a Cam Newton pass. After the 49ers second field goal the Panthers would embark on a nine play drive that took them from their own 37 to the 49ers one yard line (which carried over into the second quarter). On the first play of the second quarter facing a fourth and goal, Carolina decided to bypass a field goal try and go for the touchdown. Newton on the fourth down called his own number and dove for the goal line only to be greeted by Ahmad Brooks and a swarm of 49ers defensemen completing the much needed goal line stand.
After the 49ers went three and out following the goal line stand Mike Lee’s punt was returned by former 49er Ted Ginn Jr to the San Francisco 31 yard-line. On the very next play Newton found veteran wide receiver Steve Smith for a 31-yard touchdown pass over Tarell Brown which allowed the Panthers to take a 7-6 lead. On the next Carolina possession the Panthers embarked on another long series of 13 plays that again led to the 49ers one yard line. In the nearly nine minute drive, the Panthers had a second and third and goal from the one yard line could not get the ball end zone as the 49ers defense shut the door when they absolutely had too. The Panthers ended up settling for a Graham Gano field goal to increase their lead to four. These two goal line stands would end up being very huge events that would ultimately favor the 49ers.
49ers Respond- The 49ers would close out the first half with an impressive drive of their own. Kaepernick in this half ending drive would complete key passes to Michael Crabtree for 20 yards and Boldin for 15 yards. With time running out on the half Kaepernick on rollout was able to find Davis in the back of the end zone for a touchdown pass with just five seconds remaining on the clock. The ruling on the field initially was an incomplete pass by the back judge who ignored the divots Davis had made on the turf that were clearly in the end zone. After a booth review the 49ers were awarded the touchdown that they had rightfully scored even with Harbaugh’s unsportsmanlike penalty for arguing about the call on the field. The Unsportsmanlike penalty was enforced on the ensuing kickoff which was a squib kick to end the first half.
49ers’ Second Half Domination- Whatever the 49ers discussed in the locker room at halftime it was clear that they did not want another close call to be the determining factor in the outcome. The 49ers both offensively and defensively would come out and play one of their best half’s of football this season. The 49ers defense first stepped on the field after the second half kickoff and got the Panthers on a three and out series to set their tone for the rest of the day. The 49ers on their first offensive series would make sure it counted. During this series Kaepernick completed two passes to Boldin, one for 16 yards while the other went for 52 to set up the 49ers on the Panthers two yard line. On the very next play disaster almost struck for the 49ers as Kaepernick and Gore fumbled an exchange on a hand off. The 49ers were fortunate however that the ball fell where Gore could just fall on top of it and preserve the possession. On the next play Kaepernick decided it was best to just take matters into his own hands and ran the ball into the end zone from four yards out to cap an eight play drive that consumed 4:32 of the game clock. With Dawson’s extra point the 49ers assumed a 20-10 lead.
On the following Panthers series they started again to move the ball on the 49ers defense. For 12 plays and over eight minutes looked like they were going to answer the 49ers touchdown drive with one of their own. However the 49ers defense once again rose to the occasion and decided that it was time to clamp down on Newton. The 49ers shut down the Panthers drive as back to back quarterback sacks of Newton from NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks pushed Carolina out of field goal range and forcing a punt. This drive of 15 plays which netted no points for the Panthers all but took the wind out of their sails for the afternoon. The 49ers would take over possession of the football on their own 12 yard line and put together another drive that carried over into the fourth quarter and all but put the game away. The 49ers in this offensive series got a big boost when Gore was able to break through the Carolina defense for 39 yards getting the ball deep into Panthers territory. This 13 play drive which shaved almost eight minutes off of the game clock ended in Dawson’s third field goal of the afternoon from 34 yards out. Carolina made one last bid to get the game down to a one score contest. However an interception by Donte Whitner of a Newton pass with 4:22 remaining sealed the Panthers fate and sent the 49ers to the NFC Title game next Sunday in Seattle.
NFC Championship- The Stage is now set for the 49ers to meet the arch rival Seattle Seahawks for the right to go to Super Bowl 48. This will be the third meeting between the two NFC West rivals this season with each team not really caring too much for the other. The 49ers in their last two trips to Seattle have been routed by scores of 42-13 in December of 2012, and 29-3 in Week 2 of this season on a Sunday Night game. The 49ers have beaten Seattle the last six times they have met in Candlestick, which of course won’t be the case here. The Seahawks are a team that is as advertised and are a club with very few flaws to speak of. For the 49ers this will be a tall order and it will certainly be all hands on deck for a game that will be an ultimate litmus test for the red and gold. Las Vegas lines have the Seahawks as an early three point favorite which is to be expected. The 49ers will need to have their A-Game ready and be able to deliver on it if they have any aspirations of beating the Seahawks. This game should be a good one. The game will be carried by FOX and will start at 3:30pm PT next Sunday (Jan. 19th).
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