CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sunday’s halftime scoreboard reading seemed inconceivable. How after everything that happened had the San Francisco 49ers trotted off into the half with the 13-10 lead. How did a Panthers team that had seemingly played as well as they had all season come away with only 10 points in a half Cam Newton had put up 176 total yards by himself?
Everything about the box score showed a first half controlled by the Panthers … except the score.
There were the Panthers’ 195 yards to the 49ers’ 139. There was the 7.5 yards per attempt to only 3.9.
But twice the Panthers got to the 49ers one-yard line and came up with just three points total.
That’s when the 49ers completed the drive that crushed the Panthers’ season. Down 10-6 with 3:41 remaining in the half, the 49ers marched 80 yards on 12 plays. In 17 possessions previously against the Panthers defense this season, the 49ers hadn’t scored a touchdown. This time they did, though, in large part due to a pass interference call on Drayton Florence in the end zone on third and 9 from the Panthers 9-yard-line. The ball was severely underthrown, but Florence never looked back at the ball or made a play on it and the referee pulled a late, late flag.
Two plays later the 49ers cashed it in on a Colin Kaepernick roll out pass to Vernon Davis on a call that was initially ruled incomplete before replay overturned it.
"That was a big drive," safety Mike Mitchell said. "Questionable pass interference call. I don’t know if you call that in playoff games, but it is what it is. Got another new set of downs, couldn’t get the stop. They got the call right on the touchdown, but we could have avoided that situation. Good play by them. Didn’t make enough plays in the end."
Where they may not have gotten the call right though on the touchdown was when later replays showed the 49ers huddled with 12 players before Vance McDonald left the field, running right by referee Carl Cheffers in the process. Rivera clearly thought it should have been a penalty and said so afterwards but Cheffers explained that two 49ers players were reporting as eligible receivers so he was going through the process of announcing those and notifying the defense, so the ball hadn’t been marked for play yet.
"I saw that happen, I saw the player came off but I had not yet marked the ball ready for play so that is why I did not call it as a foul," Cheffers said after in a pool report. "The ball was not in play yet. That’s why I didn’t call the foul on the play."
There was also a questionable no call on that drive before the touchdown. Anquan Boldin head butted Mitchell in exactly the same way that Captain Munnerlyn had head butted Boldin on a previous drive. The 49ers got the penalty on Munnerlyn’s, keeping the 49ers drive alive, and the Panthers didn’t. Mitchell couldn’t hide his disgust post game.
"It was just ridiculous, couple things that weren’t called the same way," Mitchell said. "I make a good play taking his legs out, he gets up in my face and head butts me, which is the same exact thing Captain did. [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell was here, too, so I’d be curious to hear what he thought about that. Exact same play, one team gets the call, the other doesn’t. I guess that’s human error in football."
The officials started drawing Mitchell’s ire — and the Panthers — on the opening drive. With the 49ers facing a third and 6 from the Panthers 40, Kaepernick missed his receiver, but the ball was tipped and Mitchell planted his shoulder firmly in the receiver’s chest as the ball dropped to the turf in front of him, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty and an automatic first down. The 49ers kicked a field goal four plays later.
"That was a terrible call. This is playoff football in the National Football League," Mitchell said adamantly, his voice rising. "That was a terrible call. The ball was not on the ground. The replay showed that it was still in the air, the receiver had a chance to actually bend over and catch the ball. Terrible call! Terrible call! One more time — terrible call!"
Rivera wouldn’t blast the officials like Mitchell but defended his team’s composure. The playoffs are always chippy and he didn’t think his team was overhyped or unprepared for the moment.
"We have to maintain our composure and that falls on me as the head coach. I don’t want anybody to come into our yard and push us around," Rivera said. "A little disappointed obviously on what happened, how it came out, but that is part of learning and growing and becoming a better football team. We will learn from this."
But none of those penalties explain the 150 yards they gave up on the 49ers first two possessions of the second half. Doesn’t explain how they only got one sack all night after sacking Kaepernick six times in the regular season game. Doesn’t explain how Anquan Boldin — a tremendous possession receiver but one of the slower receivers in the league in a straight line — beat them on a double move to open the second half on a pass that went for 45 yards all the way down to the Panthers 2-yard line. Rookie safety Robert Lester was in on the play after starting safety Quentin Mikell had been ruled out for the game with an injury and it was clear he never gave the over-the-top help expected when Munnerlyn bit on Boldin’s first move. That play seemed to seal the Panthers’ fate after their offense had opened the half with a quick three and out.
"Miscommunication," Munnerlyn said in explaining. "We was in one call, and everybody played the defense but one guy. It’s a Cover Two defense and I really don’t know how to put it but we just got to play the right defense, everybody."
Kaepernick had his worst day of the season in the regular season meeting but was far better Sunday, going 15-of-28 for 196 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers frequently double teamed Michael Crabtree, and Boldin killed them as a result with 8 catches for 136 yards. Kaepernick even rubbed a little salt in the wound, imitating Cam Newton’s signature Superman celebration on the touchdown.
"Just a little shout out," Kaepernick said in describing the celebration.
The Panthers never could make him pay for it either. After repeatedly getting pressure with four against them in their first meeting, the 49ers frequently rolled out Kaepernick away from Greg Hardy, and the Panthers only got one sack as a result. Hardy, who had seven sacks in his last two games, finished with six tackles and no sacks and wasn’t available for comment post game.
"I tell you what they paid a lot of attention to him," Rivera said. "The back was stepping that way, they turned the line to him a couple of times. You saw a lot of two and three man routes out of them. So that meant there was an extra guy in there and they were trying to protect. They did a nice job."
Just like Rivera, all of the Panthers heaped praise on the 49ers, but it was clear they felt the loss was just as much about their lack of execution as it was about the 49ers. Mitchell said they "let them off the hook" and wanted to make sure all of his teammates let the somber feeling of despair of a magical season disappearing sink in for next year, for next time they get the team across the way that will head to their third consecutive NFC Championship game.
"I told those guys remember this feeling, remember that team. We will see them again and it’s not going to be sweet. They know they got out of here," Mitchell said. "I can’t wait to play them with a new set of refs and a new game."