CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The San Francisco 49ers' 23-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game wasn’t quite the edge-of-your-seat thriller some expected, and it had little to do with the meeting between ex-teammates and the prized fruit of the Mike Ditka coaching tree – Jim Harbaugh and Ron Rivera.
This one was about a clearly better 49ers squad teaching a bit of a lesson to the not-ready-for-primetime Panthers.
Both sides did try to make it the bare-knuckle brawl everyone expected, and the game also featured as much jawing, pushing, shoving and chirpiness as any game this season.
Afterward, NaVorro Bowman – one of the heroes of the game for San Francisco with 11 tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss – told me, “It was as much talking as I’ve ever heard on the field. It was two really good teams trying to get in the other one’s heads as much as possible and we were able to make more plays.”
Bowman was right.
Statistically, this one produced more offense than the Panthers' 10-9 victory in San Francisco in Week 10. But the numbers made it look almost like a dead heat. Carolina outgained the 49ers 325-315 in total yards and had a 10-second advantage in time of possession at 30:05.
But the 49ers were plus-2 in the turnover department and had the play-makers while the Panthers couldn’t find a difference-maker other than Steve Smith, whose 31-yard touchdown catch from Cam Newton after a 26-yard Ted Ginn, Jr. punt return gave the Panthers their only lead of the game at 10-6 in the second quarter. Smith, however, was targeted only once more with about six minutes left in the first half and then was neutralized by the 49ers' defense the rest of the game.
The lead held up until 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick found Vernon Davis in the back corner of the end zone with a 1-yard TD toss with five seconds left in the first half. It was ruled no catch on the field but replay showed Davis had dragged his left toe just before stepping out of bounds, and San Francisco went to the lockerroom with a 13-10 lead at the half.
Davis’ TD catch was his seventh in the playoffs, tying him for the all-time NFL record for TD catches by a tight end in the postseason.
When I asked Davis what the record meant to him, he told me, “Honestly, I wasn’t aware of that and I’m kind of speechless and overwhelmed. What matters now is we have a chance to do something bigger next weekend and I’m sure the record will sink in eventually."
In addition to Bowman and Davis, Ahmad Brooks (2½ sacks) and Patrick Willis (11 tackles and an interception) came up with huge stops for the 49ers.
San Francisco held Panthers running backs DeAngelo Wiliams and Mike Tolbert to a combined 13 carries for 33 yards while Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin were the difference for the 49ers on offense.
Gore rushed for 84 yards on 17 carries, including a 39-yard second-half run that set up the 49ers' last score and all but put the game away.
Boldin paced the passing game with eight catches for 136 yards, and was in the middle of a lot of the jawing that went on all afternoon.
The other big difference in the game was eight Panthers penalties for 73 yards that gave the 49ers' offense a number of second chances after seemingly being stopped.
In the locker room after the game, I asked Harbaugh what the difference was and he complimented his friend Rivera and said, "We just had a few more guys who knew how to get it done.”
Harbaugh also told me his grandfather had passed away Sunday morning, a fact that for the most part had been kept quiet all day out of respect for his parents and family.
"Its OK, though, I know he watched the game in heaven and has a huge smile on his face right now.”
It’s hard to imagine that smile could have been any bigger than the one the victorious coach was wearing as he began to think about his trip to Seattle next weekend with his second Super Bowl in two years now just one win away.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears and pro football for Shaw Media. Write to him at [email protected]