All week, I felt confident about the Niners’ chances against Carolina. They were the hottest team in the NFL, having won their final six regular season games and their Wild Card round igloo-building contest with the Packers, and they were playing a Carolina team that, while it has a great defense, also had a quarterback and coach involved in their first playoff game. What’s more, while Carolina beat San Francisco 10-9 in early November, the Niners were missing both Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree for most of that game.
Of course, everyone else took note of these same facts, and the Niners went into Carolina as one-point favorites, with nearly every analyst picking them to win. By the time the game kicked off, all those jinxes had left me a complete nervous wreck. Fortunately, the Niners pulled out a 23-10 victory. Here’s how they did it.
The Chris Berman Award (Keys to the Game): Carolina’s Turnovers and Penalties
Named for the magnificently toupéed longtime host of ESPN highlight and analysis show NFL Primetime, this award goes not to a player, but to the few key plays that defined this game: Carolina’s costly turnovers and penalties. The thing that will probably get forgotten when people look at the final margin is that the Panthers completely outplayed the Niners on both sides of the ball for most of the first half. But, flash back to my picks column from last week, when I said, “this game could be decided by anything—a missed field goal, a bad penalty, an ill-timed turnover.” This turned out to be very much the case, as the Panthers made several key mistakes that kept San Francisco in the game. There are so many of them, I think we need bullet points:
- On the Niners’ opening drive, Colin Kaepernick threw incomplete on a third-and-six near midfield, but Panthers safety Mike Mitchell hit Davis late, drawing a fifteen yard penalty that brought the Niners into field goal range.
- On the Panthers’ opening drive, Cam Newton threw an interception to Patrick Willis that let the Niners start with the ball in Panthers territory.
- On the ensuing drive, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (who, really, should be a character in a Horatio Hornblower novel) headbutted Crabtree, drawing a 15-yard penalty that again helped the Niners get into field goal range (it should be noted that Anquan Boldin did the same thing later in the game, and he was not flagged).
- The Panthers then proceeded to drive down the field all the way to the one-yard line, only to have the Niners mount a goal-line stand, culminating in Ahmad Brooks stuffing Cam Newton on fourth down on the first play of the second quarter.
- This one’s not a turnover, but later in the second quarter, the Panthers drove down to the one yard line again, and the Niners mounted a goal-line stand AGAIN, this time dropping Mike Tolbert for a two-yard loss on third down and forcing the Panthers to settle for a field goal.
- Then, on the Niners’ final possession of the first half, on third-and-goal from the nine, Carolina’s Drayton Florence took an obvious pass interference penalty on a pass that Boldin had basically no chance of catching. The Niners took the lead with a touchdown two plays later.
Newton also threw a game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter (following an obscenely ridiculous helmet-to-helmet 15-yard penalty on linebacker Dan Skuta, who was flagged even though Newton spun right into him—seriously, while it wasn’t nearly as damaging, this penalty was even stupider than the roughing the passer penalty called on Brooks during the Saints game.) But those plays in the first half were the real key to the Niners’ victory. It seemed like the Panthers came out trying to make a statement that they were the more physical team and that they would manhandle the Niners. But, while Carolina WAS physically dominant early in the game, they overdid it, with the result being those big early penalties that led to points for the Niners. And then Carolina’s turnovers and failed conversions kept points off their side of the board. The Panthers easily could have been up something like 21-3 halfway through the second quarter. Instead they led just 10-6, and the Niners went into the half up 13-10 thanks to a play we’ll get to shortly.
The Gary Plummer Award (For the Play that Shifted the Momentum): Ahmad Brooks
Brooks’ hit to keep Newton out of the end zone on fourth down would be enough to get this award, but he absolutely HAD to get the Gary Plummer trophy for what he did on the second goal-line stand. On third-and-goal from the one, Brooks tried to anticipate the snap count—and guessed wrong. He ended up leaping over the offensive line and giving Newton a love tap on the back, a play that left me facedown on the bar, convulsing with laughter. For the love of all that is holy, please click on this GIF.
Aside from the fact that you have to mention Gary Plummer any time a linebacker jumps over the line on a goal-line play, I just wanted to salute Brooks (who had yet another fantastic game, with 2.5 sacks) for what is actually a really smart play. In that position, it’s absolutely worth it to try to guess at the snap count: If you guess right, you blow up a play in the backfield for a huge loss; if you guess wrong, the resulting offsides penalty only costs you a foot or two of field position. Really, I don’t understand why more guys don’t try this. With plays like that, Ahmad Brooks has turned himself into one of my favorite Niners.
The Dwight Clark Award (Clutch, Athletic Touchdown Catch on a Ball Thrown by a Rolling QB to the Back Corner of the End Zone During a Playoff Game): Vernon Davis
This is a pretty specific award, but I already gave Gary Plummer honors to Brooks, and I had to come up with something else for this gigantic play. On the final drive of the first half, the Niners had gotten the ball down to the Carolina one-yard line, and due to some questionable clock management—they were trying to score while leaving Carolina no time to retaliate, but in the process left themselves with no margin for error—there were just five seconds left on the clock when a rolling Kaepernick threw a ball to Davis in the back corner of the end zone that was ruled incomplete. Jim Harbaugh then stupidly came charging out on the field, drawing a 15-yard penalty that was going to force the Niners to settle for yet another field goal. (Harbaugh later said that he was not disputing the ruling, but pointing out that the clock had kept running at the end of the play, costing the Niners about three seconds. He was right, but running out on the field the way he did was still stupid.) The whole thing was a complete fucking disaster, except that the official in the replay booth reviewed it, and the slo-mo replay—not to mention the divots in the corner of the end zone—showed that Davis had gotten both feet down. Touchdown. The Niners went into halftime with a lead they would never relinquish.
The Colin Kaepernick Award (Best Touchdown Celebration): Colin Kaepernick
I would have loved to name the touchdown celebration award after Terrell Owens, who had a few well-publicized doozies during his career, but I already named an award after T.O. earlier this year, so Kaepernick, who of course has a famous touchdown celebration of his own, gets his own award. The Niners’ defense shut Carolina down on the opening possession of the third quarter, and then the offense took the ball right down the field, thanks largely to a couple of big catches from Boldin, who had yet another monster game, with 8 receptions for 136 yards. On first-and-goal, Kaepernick and Gore fumbled their handoff exchange, a play that nearly gave me a heart attack, but on second-and-goal from the four, Kaepernick ran left, eluding a couple of Carolina defenders and striding into the end zone to give the Niners a 20-10 lead. After scoring, he stood in the end zone and made a motion like Superman pulling off his Clark Kent clothes—mocking Newton’s trademark touchdown celebration—before Kapernicking.
Have I mentioned that I love Colin Kaepernick? Not sure if I have. Probably at some point.
The Emmett Smith Award (Most Hated Opponent): Cam Newton
I actually don’t hate Newton at all. He seems like a pretty likable player, and I think, much like Kaepernick, he’s been the target of some pretty unfair—and more than a little racist—criticism early in his career. I’m using this space to give Newton his props, because he terrified me during this game. His 31-yard touchdown throw to Steve Smith was, objectively, a thing of beauty, and he made several other laser throws during this game. He also ran for 54 yards on 10 carries, and he’s so big that at times he seemed to overwhelm the Niners’ vaunted linebackers. The recaps of this game will say that Kaepernick outdueled Newton, but it’s not really true: Newton looked A LOT better than Kaepernick for most of the first half. The interceptions hurt, the second one in particular, but don’t forget that Kaepernick very nearly threw a pick six himself, and he has a lot more weapons to work with on offense than Newton does. Kaepernick deserves credit for putting together the drives that won the game for the Niners, starting late in the second quarter and continuing throughout the second half, but we should all remember that Cam Newton is a beast.
Overall Rating For This Game (On a scale of Zero to Twelve Anchors, in honor of San Francisco’s favorite beverage): 8 Anchors
As playoff wins go, this one feels pretty ho-hum, mostly because Carolina just couldn’t move the ball at all during the second half, making the final seem like a foregone conclusion. Still, it’s worth noting that the Niners have now won three road playoff games in the last two years; Colin Kaepernick already has more career road playoff wins than Peyton Manning (and more than Steve Young and Joe Montana COMBINED—though it’s hard to win road playoff games when you have homefield advantage every year). It’s also worth noting that after this game ended I went home and laid flat on my back in a state of utter, narcotized contentment that led into a two-hour nap. Sounds like an 8 Anchor win to me.
And so it comes down to Niners-Seahawks, in Seattle, the rubber match for the season series, to decide who comes to New York (well, New Jersey) for Super Bowl XLVIII. That’s just the way it had to be, and everybody knows it.