When the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers met back in November, the Niners couldn't buy a first down in short-yardage situations. On Sunday, San Francisco dominated in the trenches in the game's biggest moments.
The 49ers are headed to their third straight NFC Championship Game after a thorough 23-10 takedown of the Carolina Panthers. San Francisco will head to Seattle next Sunday for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVIII.
We could give credit to a number of areas for the 49ers, but the biggest difference in this matchup was up front. San Francisco manhandled Carolina's offense in seven goal-to-go situations in the first half, preventing them from scoring a short touchdown with two great goal-line stands. The 49ers offense, meanwhile, routinely picked up third-and-short situations all game.
"It was a real arm-wrestling type of a struggle," coach Jim Harbaugh said after the win. "I think facts are stubborn things. Keep them out of the end zone, that is a statement."
The Panthers played like a team making its first postseason appearance in a long time. Two dumb penalties early led to six 49ers points. When calls went against Carolina, they didn't respond well. When the 49ers made a run in the second half, Carolina never fought back.
It was a typical Cam Newton performance in many ways. He was dazzling in the first half, a near-flawless effort that was unlucky to only result in 10 points. But he missed too many throws in the second half and held on to the ball too long, taking sacks in crucial situations to take points off the board.
Carolina's offense will get criticized for a no-show in the second half, but the Panthers' vaunted defensive front seven was similarly pushed around. Down 10-6 late in the second quarter, San Francisco embarked on an 87-yard touchdown drive. The Niners opened up the second half with two more long scoring drives that went over 70 yards and took up more than 12 minutes on the clock. Carolina's defense could not get off the field.
The 49ers were a different team in the second half. After barely touching Newton in the first 30 minutes, the Niners were all over him after halftime. Colin Kaepernick struggled while throwing 24 passes in the first half. He only needed to throw four after halftime while playing keepaway. That's 49ers football. That's a team that knows how to close in the playoffs.
This was a matchup of two teams that were mirror images. Carolina's style all year was to kill the clock with long drives. On this day, San Francisco was far better punishing their opponent on both sides of the ball.
The Niners beat the Panthers at their own game, and did it convincingly.