Carolina ended its season Sunday with a home loss to San Francisco in an NFC divisional playoff game, falling short of their Super Bowl goal before more than 70,000 loud but ultimately disappointed fans.
Here are 5 things that went wrong:
1) The 1-yard line. The Panther offense got there twice and couldn't punch the ball in, as San Francisco's defense absolutely stoned the team on everything it tried. Cam Newton's fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak from the 1 was, I thought, the right playcall and the right move by Ron Rivera to go for it. But the offensive line couldn't do its job.
And the next time the Panthers finally had to kick a field goal after two more plays from the 1 also got nothing as the O-line was again pushed around.
2) Loss of composure. The Panthers' defense had two really bad early penalties, with safety Mike Mitchell called for a late hit after a third-down stop (that gave San Francisco a field goal) and Captain Munnerlyn with a head butt. And then Josh Thomas threw a punch at a 49er receiver with 4:02 left to provide the final killing blow to the Panthers' chances -- again after an unsuccessful third down for the 49ers.
3) Anquan Boldin issues. The 49ers' receiver was trash-talking (and had a head butt of his own that should have been called that wasn't). But more than anything, he was whipping the Carolina secondary. By the third quarter, when San Francisco took a 20-10 lead, Boldin already had 122 yards in reception yardage. Panther DBs had major issues all day even besides those three awful unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, as Drayton Florence was called for pass interference in the end zone and safety Robert Lester (in after an injury) apparently blew a deep coverage on Boldin and missed terribly on a tackle that allowed Frank Gore to go on a 39-yard gallop.
4) 12 men on the field. With the Panthers holding a 10-6 lead deep in the second quarter, the 49ers put 12 men in the huddle on first-and-goal from the 1. It should have been a five-yard flag. The officials didn't catch it. I thought most of the controversial calls Sunday the officials did the right thing on (Vernon Davis's toe-dragging TD included) but this one was a very big miss. It's quite likely Carolina would have gone into halftime ahead 10-9 instead of down 13-10 without it.
5) Colin Kaepernick. His stats weren't much different than Cam Newton, but he got his team into the end zone twice and Newton only got there once. Kaepernick did what I thought was a bush-league move when he mocked Newton's Superman pose after scoring on a rushing TD before doing his own "kiss-the-bicep." A lot of defensive players have done that after sacking Newton, but that seems different to me somehow. One quarterback mocking another just doesn't seem like the right play. But give credit to Kaepernick -- he never turned the ball over and he got his team another win on the road. And Kaep ultimately bested Newton, who threw a late interception with the Panthers down 23-10 but driving that all but sealed the game for San Francisco with 4:22 left.
Bottom line: Panther fans will be angry and disappointed after this one for awhile. But this wasn't the Arizona playoff game from five years ago. This was a game all the way. 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.
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