Monday, January 13, 2014

Not For You

Once again, the 49ers went on the road for a Playoff game where they found themselves favored and justified the odds. In a game that showed the team's mental and physical toughness, the 49ers went into Charlotte and laid a full-scale smackdown on the upstart Carolina Panthers, shutting them out in the second half en route to a 23-10 victory, earning them their third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship game.

The 49ers took the field on Sunday with the look of a team still stewing over a tough defeat during the regular season; a game where the Panthers took advantage of some of the 49ers weaknesses and kind of embarrassed them on their home field. Colin Kaepernick said following the win in Green Bay that "...we owe them one..." and exacted their revenge with efficiency. The 49ers played this game looking pissed off, and nothing exemplified this more than Anquan Boldin, who continually beat the Panthers defense for clutch receptions, punctuated by emphatic screaming at whatever Carolina defender was in earshot. It might have bordered on the edge of classlessness, but it had its desired effect; Boldin, among others, was able to incite Carolina's defense into multiple personal foul penalties that helped to extend 49er drives. The 49ers played with a controlled anger, perhaps the truest sign of a veteran team that knows its capabilities and the task at hand, taking advantage of an amped-up Panthers team, the majority of which was playing in their first Postseason game.

That being said, it could have just as easily backfired. The 49ers came out early in the game with an attack that seemed to mirror their Week 10 meeting with the Panthers (or, perhaps, last week's game in Green Bay). The 49ers moved smartly down the field on their opening possession, with Kaepernick hitting Quinton Patton for a big 3rd down conversion and Frank Gore for another before Boldin rooked Mike Mitchell into an unnecessary roughness penalty, but ultimately, the drive stalled and ended in a Phil Dawson Field Goal. The 49ers got the ball back quickly, though. After Cam Newton strutted out with a pair of completions, his 3rd pass bounced off the hands of Brandon LaFell and into the arms of a diving Patrick Willis, giving the 49ers possession in Carolina territory. This drive, the 49ers managed to gain more yardage thanks to Carolina penalties than actual offense, and again ended up with a Dawson Field Goal to go up 6-0.

This wasn't an encouraging start offensively, although the 49ers seem to have made a habit all season of these slow-ish starts and settling for Field Goals. To this point, it hasn't hurt them too badly, but you wonder just how long that particular whip can be ridden. The Panthers appeared primed to make the 49ers pay for this late in the 1st Quarter. Newton led the Panthers on a drive well into San Francisco territory, aided by a long pass to Steve Smith and a few of his own runs. The Panthers ended up with a first down inside the 49ers 10 yard line, but runs by Mike Tolbert and a sneak attempt by Newton landed the ball at the 1 yard line. The Panthers, behind coach Ron Rivera, seemed to have made a name for themselves this season by going for it on 4th down, rather than taking the points, and succeeding. So, naturally, the Panthers went for it on 4th and 1. But Newton's attempted sneak was jammed at the line of scrimmage by Ahmad Brooks, and the 49ers turned away the Panthers without a score. But this indirectly led to a Panther score, as the 49ers, backed up against their own goal line, could only advance a few yards before having to Punt, and Andy Lee's fine effort was negated with Ted Ginn, Jr returned the kick to the 49ers 31-yard line, and one play later, Newton threw a strike to Smith for a Touchdown, instantly giving the Panthers the lead.

In need of a response, the 49ers only managed to move the ball to their own 40 yard line before punting it back to the Panthers, and Newton again shot the Panthers down the field with a quickness. He hit Greg Olsen for a 35-yard gain and Smith for another 10 before scrambling down to the 1 yard line, putting the Panthers right at the door again and on the precipice of opening up some distance between them and a 49ers team that seemed untracked offensively. But, again, the defense of the 49ers rose up and smacked the Panthers in the mouth, stopping Tolbert twice and registering a sack on Newton before Rivera decided this time to cut his losses and take the points, letting Graham Gano kick the Field Goal. This crucial decision gave the Panthers a 10-6 lead and would be the last points Carolina would score in the game.

Staring down the barrel of a game that was beginning to shape up all too similar to the frustrating game of Week 10, Kaepernick and the 49ers offense got their shit together and responded with a clutch, smashmouth drive that ate up the remaining time in the 1st half and got them their lead back. Kaepernick, who'd been fairly quiet since the 49ers first drive of the game, completing a pair of passes to Boldin and another to Michael Crabtree, who made a leaping grab in traffic for a 20-yard game that justified the lofty praise placed on him by his coach earlier in the week. Another quick strike to Boldin picked up even more yards and even more smack talk, as Boldin got upended by Mitchell and then immediately jumped up and got in Mitchell's face. Three plays later, the spotlight was on Boldin again, as he drew a key Pass Interference penalty on Drayton Florence. Kaepernick had attempted a fade route to the front corner of the End Zone, but Florence basically ran Boldin out of bounds rather than paying attention to the call. This set up Vernon Davis' tightrope Touchdown with 5 seconds left in the half, a beauty of a catch that was initially ruled incomplete and Davis out of bounds, in spite of the fact that Davis left some pretty obvious cleat marks in the End Zone. Jim Harbaugh threw one of his patented apoplectic shit fits, to the point where Boldin had to race over to calm him down, but replays confirmed Davis made a good catch and the 49ers went into the half leading 13-10, coming off a Touchdown drive, something they weren't able to do in Week 10.

With momentum now on their side, the 49ers charged out in the second half and pretty much wiped the Panthers out the door. The defense forced a quick 3-and-out and the offense responded with another Touchdown drive that was pretty much the backbreaker for Carolina. Boldin again carried the load, breaking off a 45-yard gain on a reception that saw him basically run right past Captain Munnerlyn for the reception, placing the 49ers inside the Panthers 5 yard line. Two plays later, they were in the end zone, courtesy of Kaepernick, who broke out the read option, ran left and was left with a clean path to the end zone when Florence completely overran him. This opened up a 10-point lead for the 49ers, which Kaepernick spread a little extra mustard on by mocking Newton's "Superman" Touchdown pose, before quickly "buttoning up" his shirt and performing this Postseason's first Kaepernicking.

The two 49ers possessions had tilted momentum solidly in their favor, and now it was up to the Panthers to face this adversity and mount a clutch comeback of their own. But the starch seemed to be completely taken out of their attack. The Panthers embarked on what would be an excruciatingly slow 8+ minute possession that didn't get very far. The 49ers defense had worn down the Panthers offensive line to the point where they could only manage to creak downfield a few yards at a time, and their 13 play drive that began at their own 24 managed to get only as far as the 49ers 29-yard line, before the line collapsed completely and Newton ended up taking sacks on consecutive plays by Brooks and Navorro Bowman, taking the Panthers out of Field Goal range and forcing them to punt back to the 49ers.

Now firmly in control, the 49ers set out to salt the game away by handing the ball to Frank Gore, who, after a mostly quiet game, bulldozed his way through the Panthers defense for, among other things, a 39-yard gain that aided in the setup for an icing Dawson Field Goal to make the score 23-10, after a drive that ate up about half the clock in the 4th Quarter while Newton stood on the sideline with a big ol' Shaun Marcum-esque puss on his face. By time the Panthers got the ball back, they were in near-impossible circumstances, and while Newton managed to matriculate them down the field, he did so with little to no sense of urgency and with 4:34 to go in the game, he sailed a pass in the vague direction of Greg Olsen that was promptly intercepted by Donte Whitner that for all intents and purposes sealed the game up. I personally do not like to act presumptuous and assume victory in situations like this, but Newton's pass was airmailed so badly and the body language of the Panthers by this point looked so defeated that with 4+ minutes remaining, I was already sending out "Seattle, here we come" text messages. And why not? The Panthers committed one more unconscionable Personal Foul penalty as their frustration bubbled over and the 49ers basically were able to run out the consequential remaining time and seal a date with the Seattle Seahawks in next Sunday's NFC Championship game.

The 49ers looked every bit like the elite team they've been portrayed as of late in winning their 8th consecutive game and 2nd consecutive Playoff Road game. Not only did they avenge their defeat to the Panthers in Week 10, but they really put Carolina in their place as a team of upstarts, not the Hot Team they might have been regarded as. True, the 49ers talked as much trash as the Panthers did, but what they didn't do was allow the trash talking to affect their actions. This is the sign of a team that can play smart from a psychological standpoint just as much as they can from a football standpoint. They haven't made dumb mistakes, committing only one turnover in their two playoff games, but more importantly, they haven't reacted to the inevitable trash talk that will fly around in any NFL Game. If anything, they exposed the Panthers as a talented, but emotionally immature team and they exploited this throughout the game on Sunday.

This mental toughness is something Jim Harbaugh has talked about for several weeks now, and now it's going to need to come out in the highest order as the 49ers will be traveling to a place that's been a bit of a house of horrors for them of late in Seattle's Boeing Alice In Chains Adderall Century Link Field to play their dear friends the Seattle Seahawks. It seems like the 49ers and Seahawks have more or less been on a collision course to meet in the NFC Championship all season, and it looks to be the game that everyone wanted to see, or at least the game anyone who likes well-played, smashmouth football between two teams that really can't stand one another but are built more or less the same. Mental toughness would serve the 49ers well against the Seahawks, who boast a multitude of shit-talkers, many of whom rank among the NFL's top talents at their positions. Moreover, the Seahawks fans, who seem well-represented in this commercial, seem to think they can control the game just as much as the players, which might be giving themselves a bit too much credit, but I digress. The recent struggles the 49ers have had at the Clink don't mean a damn thing anymore. What matters now is getting ready for the season's 3rd matchup with the Seahawks where the stakes are of a much higher order. The NFC Championship will rightfully be decided between the two teams that were the best in the Conference. That much is certain.

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