Yesterday the San Francisco 49ers beat the Carolina Panthers 23-10 and will march into Seattle next Sunday to face the Seahawks with a chance to advance to the Super Bowl for a second straight year. Riding the wave of an 8-game winning streak that now includes playoff wins against the Packers and Panthers, the 49ers are playing some of the best 49er football we’ve seen all season.
The playoff match-up versus the Panthers started much like the Week 10 match up, with a solid offensive performance from the 49ers early in the game and failure to convert drives into touchdowns. But man oh man did the 49ers defense show up. Both teams had 300+ offensive yards, but the 49ers had two takeaways which were the difference. Patrick Willis with a huge interception early in the game on a tipped pass, Amhad Brooks had 2.5 sacks the team had 4 sacks total, and Dontae “Hitner” Whitner sealed the game with a fourth quarter pick of Cam Newton. So as it stands, Ron Rivera, Cam Newton, Steve Smith and the Carolina Panthers will be watching the NFC Championship at home like most of us. Or better yet, wide receiver Steve Smith of the Panthers said it best, “There’s a team that gets to go play in Seattle, and that’s the Niners”.
The 49ers first drive resulted in a field goal, as well as the second drive and the 49ers took an early 6-0 lead. It appeared as if the 49ers defense were going to completely shut down the Panthers offense early when they stuffed Panthers running back Mike Tolbert on 4th & 1 on the goal line in the first quarter and again on 4th & 1 stuffed Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on a failed quarterback sneak into the end zone to begin the second quarter. The 49ers took over at the 1 yard line but the drive didn’t produce much and they were forced to punt to former 49er returner Ted Ginn Jr. who gave the Panthers great field position on a 24 yard return. Ted Ginn Jr. also burned his former team for 104 yards receiving on only 4 receptions on the day. The following play Cam Newton found Steve Smith down the sideline for 31 yards torching 49ers cornerback Terrell Brown and the touchdown gave the Panthers a 7-6 lead.
The next sequence of plays the 49ers punted the ball back to the Panthers and a drive that ultimately lead to a Panthers field goal giving the Panthers a 10-6 lead with four minutes left in the half. It was that moment that made you shake your head and curse the 49ers offense for not getting it done early. Even at the very end of that second quarter as the 49ers drove down field in the final seconds it felt like they would never find the end zone, but alas Vernon Davis tiptoes the corner of the end zone for the touchdown and at that moment, I had a little more faith in Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers took a 13-10 lead into half time.
But this has been the 49ers issue all season, able to produce time consuming, yard efficient drives but unable to produce touchdowns, especially down in the red zone. The 49ers defense has never been a question mark and in fact was the only consistency the 49ers had all season. The offense has struggled and even more so Colin Kaepernick has struggled this season. Not only has Kap had issues getting the offense organized, he’s had major accuracy issues all season. Much of the early season issues could have been attributed to not having wide-out Michael Crabtree in the line-up, but even when Crabtree was healthy he was mainly a possession receiver catching only one touchdown in his five regular season games. The passing game has been unreliable this season, all season and a large reason has been the decision making of Kaepernick whether at the line calling an audible or just going through progressions on passing plays. What is even more concerning is the inability that Kap has shown to produce from 30 yards out. While it’s easy to say Kap hasn’t played well against Seattle in the past I want you to hold that thought for just a moment and consider what I am going to say next.
I will be the first to argue the point of Kaepernick’s inefficiency this season, however, what I have seen over these two playoff games, I have a new argument – Kaepernick the playmaker. What Kap has failed to do all season, make the right play at the right time, he seems to finally be making those plays in the playoffs. Kap doesn’t need to put up amazing numbers, and quite honestly I don’t think he will against Seattle. Kap just needs to make the right throw at the right time and run when he has the room to pick up yards. He did that against Green Bay, he did it against Carolina, not spectacular numbers (15-28, 196 yards, 1 passing TD, 1 rushing TD, 1 sack vs. Panthers) but the key is he threw and ran for a touchdown against a solid defense, something he has only done against the Titans, Jaguars and Falcons this season. With Seattle looming, that’s a positive, no mistakes (I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that almost-pick-six late in the first quarter) against a great defense on the road and in back to back games he has made the right plays at the right time, both games on the road in hostile environments. All positives.
What is even more impressive to note is the Green Bay game was played in minus degree weather and a sleeveless Kap showed me he was not going to allow the weather or other outside factors to distract him from the team goal, a Super Bowl appearance. That mentality is the kind of mentality I believe Kap lacked early in the season and he has found it against Green Bay and Carolina. It’s that kind of mentality that will be needed to beat the Seahawks. I should also note that Frank Gore was again limited for much of the game against the Panthers (17 carries for 84 yards), and I don’t expect that to change against the Seahawks. That puts more pressure on Kap to get the job done, either throwing or running, but he has to get the job done and I think he will finally settle down and play smart football, even if things don’t go his way early. Kap has had an issue with complicating things for himself and over-thinking a play because his team is down and that’s when he has made the mistake in crucial moments of the losses earlier in the season.
With all that said I think it is obvious going into the Conference Championship, the 49ers Super Bowl hopes lies squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He must be the difference and there is no question if he plays poorly the 49ers don’t advance, but I don’t think we’ve seen Kap’s best just yet. Yes, dare I say it, Kap has been quietly and patiently waiting all season for this matchup and I believe this time he gets the better of the Seattle Seahawks. Kaepernick has quietly played his two best games at the most important time of the year and I think we should give Kaepernick some credit. Sure he has had some better games this year, but as we all know, what you do in the playoffs is all that matters. This 49ers defense is playing great football right now but they will not be able to hold Marshawn Lynch all game unless they get help from the offensive side in the form of point production and force Seattle to throw, something I don’t believe the Seahawks can do efficiently enough to beat the 49ers.
Quest For Six. Believe the hype.