Carolina Panthers’ dream season ends with 23-10 loss to 49ers

CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers‘ dream season came to an abrupt end Sunday, as the San Francisco 49ers defeated the NFC’s second seed, 23-10, at Bank of America Stadium. Squandered opportunities by Carolina (could have led 28-6), set up the loss.

But I’ll bet if I had told Panthers fans back in August, would you be happy if the Cats could host a playoff game in January, the answer would have been a resounding, “Absolutely!”

The game was a defensive struggle, as expected. Carolina fell behind 6-0 following two field goals by the Niners Phil Dawson. But Cam Newton, who played exceedingly well in the first half, found his stride, and his receivers in the second quarter.  His best pass was a 31-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Steve Smith, which gave the Panthers a 7-6 lead early in the quarter. Ten minutes later, Carolina’s Graham Gano hit a 24-yard field goal as Riverboat Ron Rivera, stung from earlier missing a fourth-and-one from the half-yard line opportunity, chose to get the easy three points, giving Carolina a 10-6 lead.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick led his team into the NFC title game for the third consecutive season with a 23-10 win at Carolina.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick led his team into the NFC title game for the third consecutive season with a 23-10 win at Carolina.

Just when you thought the Panthers might have had the Niners number, Colin Kaepernick became Superman (more on that later). He led the visitors on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 3:36. His one-yard touchdown toss to Vernon Davis in the back corner of the end zone and subsequent PAT gave the Niners a 13-10 halftime lead. It was the first touchdown scored by San Francisco in 18 drives against the Panthers this season.

And to make things worse for the home team, the Niners defense stuffed the Panthers on their opening drive of the second half – three-and-out – keeping all the momentum with the NFC’s No. 5 seed. Then, Kaepernick was at it again. He led the Niners down the field on an 8-play, 77-yard drive in 4:32, culminating with Kap’s 4-yard rush into the end zone. After not scoring a touchdown on 17 drives against Carolina this season, suddenly, the Niners had two in a row. And, to make things interesting, Kaepernick celebrated by copying Cam Newton’s nearly-patented Superman celebration pose, before kissing his bicep, which, of course, is Kap’s celebratory move.

In the second half, the Niners defense stifled Newton and the offensive line for Carolina was unable to hold off the mostly four-man rush. Newton was sacked time and time again, as he was unable to find open receivers. With 4:30 to play in the game, Carolina’s chances ended when Newton threw his first interception of the game to Dante Whitner. With the Niners leading 23-10, a touchdown was about the only hope the Cats had to come back in the game.

Following the game, Kaepernick said, “They did some unorthodox things early, then we got into our rhythm and started making plays.”

San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Carolina's Cam Newton, two of the best young quarterbacks in the league, meet before the game to wish each other well.

Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Carolina’s Cam Newton, two of the best young quarterbacks in the league, meet before the game to wish each other well.

No need to cry about this one…the Panthers had their chances early, but the better team won today. The team with playoff experience won the game. The team that was able to make crucial stops on their own goal line (twice) early in the game, won it. The team that failed to intercept a pass thrown right in their breadbasket, nine yards away from their end zone, and a near-sure pick-six, lost.

Here’s what happened to the Panthers early in the game: First, on the half-yard line, a fourth down try for the touchdown failed as the Niners stuffed Newton on a sneak. The second was when cornerback Quentin Mikell dropped a potential nine-yard pick-six from Colin Kaepernick. Really, I could have run that in (if I had caught it). Then, probably because of the first failure to score from the half-yard line, facing a similar situation, Riverboat Ron went for the sure three points, as Gano made field goal. Think about it…21 potential points became just 3. If the field was 99 yards long, this would have been a different game, but, of course, it is not.

The Panthers had an excellent season, winning the NFC South and winning 12 regular-season games. They are in fine shape to post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 2014. This one will sting, but it shouldn’t take away from what was overall a much better season than almost everyone expected.

This year, the Panthers helped me get a few bucket list items marked off. As a member of the working press, I was treated as an equal during the entire season, from July through today. They gave me full media credentials and access to the players and coaching staff. I was on the sidelines during practice, at times close enough so that I believe I could have made a couple of plays (not really…). I attended games at Bank of America Stadium and was treated with respect by staff and media peers. And to have been able to cover this team from the opening of training camp (when I said I felt they would win 10 games) until today. It was quite a ride. I hope you, my readers, have enjoyed some of my insights this season.