It seems we can’t have an NFC Championship Game without the San Francisco 49ers these days. With a 23-10 win in Carolina, San Fran made it for the third straight year under Jim Harbaugh, and for the twelfth time since 1981. This year’s 49er team did it as the only road team to win in the second round. Let’s run through the Notebook Nine points to takeaway from the San Francisco-Carolina game…
- *What a defensive display this was by the 49ers. Carolina seemed to have some offense going early. The Panthers had a 10-6 lead and Cam Newton had thrown a beautiful 31-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith down the sidelines. Newton won praise at halftime from CBS studio analyst Jimmy Johnson, and Smith’s bad knee appeared completely healed. Then San Francisco just took it over after halftime.
- *Physical dominance of the line of scrimmage is usually the key to success, and it was again here. San Francisco held Carolina’s running backs to just 39 yards on the ground. The Niners produced five sacks, nine QB hits, with Ahmad Brooks spending as much time in the backfield is Newton. Carolina never looked even remotely ready to move the ball in the second half.
- *San Francisco swung the momentum with a touchdown drive to end the first half, on a Colin Kaepernick-to-Vernon Davis touchdown pass. The play was originally ruled incomplete, even though Davis clearly dragged his second foot inbounds and right in front of the end zone official. I find myself asking this question a lot—how did this call even get missed on the field? Since it happened with under two minutes, a booth review overturned it, but had it not, why should San Francisco have had to use up a challenge on an obvious call with the official in perfect position? NFL officiating has to improve.
- *San Francisco then sealed the momentum swing with a touchdown drive to open the second half and go up 20-10. Kaepernick ran it in from four yards out, and then did a mocking dance of Newton’s “Superman” move, before returning to his own kiss of his biceps. I really should find this classless, but there’s just something about the way Colin Kaepernick carries himself that I just love. The in-your-face move on Newton in his own house was either a sign that Kaepernick is fearless or that he’s a classless moron. Of course those don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for now I’m enjoying the show.
- *A more serious way that the 49ers are playing with fire is in the inability cash in trips to the red zone. For the second straight week, they drove the ball well offensively on the game’s first two drives, yet led only 6-0, and ended up trailing 7-6. To be fair, one of the drives on Sunday was a longer field goal that never got to the red zone, but after a game against Green Bay where Frisco should have been up 14-0, the 49ers should have had a 10-0 early lead in Carolina.
- *Fox game analyst Troy Aikman commented that he was surprised San Francisco doesn’t get more big plays in its passing game, given how well they run the ball. Excuse me, but the 49ers are seventh in the NFL in yards-per-pass attempt. Perhaps Aikman was thinking of something more specific, like number of plays for 20-plus yards (I don’t know where they would rank there). But if not, Aikman might need to lower his expectations. Kaepernick isn’t high-percentage, but does make his completions count.
- *Just how big of a ringer is Harbaugh. We’ve always known about his temper, but after his outburst on the missed call in the end zone on the Davis catch (prior to the booth review), the head coach came running out onto the field, incurred a 15-yard penalty, and had to be calmed down by wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who’d just been rebuked by Aikman for his non-stop chatter. What does it say when your coach has to be reined in by your leading trash-talker?
- *Cam Newton was definitely outplayed, but let’s keep this in context. Newton’s success this year came not because he was spectacular, but because his defense always kept him in manageable situations. That didn’t happen on Sunday. I think Newton deserves a lot of credit for showing he could play a safe style. We know he’s got the talent to make big plays, so next year’s challenge will be to get the explosiveness of his 2011 rookie year integrated into the safe, winning style he used this season.
- *Because of Carolina’s great year, Newton and head coach Ron Rivera won’t catch much heat, but I want to launch a pre-emptive strike on something that may come up if they don’t advance in the playoffs over the next couple years. It’s the notion of “never winning a playoff game”, a tag that hung on Atlanta’s Matt Ryan until last season. When your team earns a first-round bye, isn’t that as good as a win? Instead of quoting playoff W-L records, let’s instead quote the number of times teams/QBs make a given round, a much more accurate measurement in a system where first-round byes are in play.