SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Bring on Carolina once more, and another cross-country playoff flight.
The San Francisco 49ers are all for a rematch with the Panthers, even if it means hitting the road again to keep their postseason run going.
“Onward now,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.
The Panthers shut down San Francisco and quarterback Colin Kaepernick 10-9 at Candlestick Park on Nov. 10, snapping the Niners’ five-game winning streak. The 49ers lost the following week at New Orleans for their second two-game skid of the season, but have been on an impressive unbeaten roll in seven games since then after a 23-20, wild-card win Sunday at bitterly cold Green Bay.
Now, the 49ers (13-4) get a second chance at Cam Newton and Co. in the NFC divisional playoffs Sunday. Now, they have a healthy, playmaking Michael Crabtree in the receiving corps.
And true to his normal, succinct nature, Kaepernick offered this on Carolina: “We owe ‘em.”
Added rookie linebacker Nick Moody on Twitter: “Rematch against Carolina next week.”
Kaepernick went 11 of 22 for 91 yards with an interception and was sacked six times for a 42.0 passer rating in a rare poor performance the first time.
Both Kaepernick and Panthers quarterback Newton – drafted No. 1 overall in 2011 while Kaepernick was the sixth QB selected – will be eager to have much better games on the postseason stage.
Newton went 16 of 32 for 169 yards, an interception and four sacks for a 52.7 rating.
The Niners needed every ounce out of Kaepernick to get past Green Bay for the fourth straight time and second playoff victory in as many Januarys.
“We’ve got a good bad-weather quarterback. I think we’ve established that,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Being able to throw a ball that pierces through the elements, the wind. He’s shown that in the rain, bad weather, footing, or elements of precipitation. He can pierce a defense with velocity and tightness of the spiral.”
Not to mention his long legs.
Kaepernick’s 11-yard run on third-and-8 set up Phil Dawson’s winning 33-yard field goal as time expired at Lambeau Field on Sunday night.
No sleeves necessary for the tattooed quarterback playing in subzero temperatures, a Wisconsin native to the bone.
Kaepernick connected with a couple of his favorite playoff targets Sunday, completing eight passes for 125 yards to Crabtree and a 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter at Green Bay.
Dawson deserved his share of the credit, too. On a day when no kick was a gimme, he came through with three field goals and the game-winner.
Biggest kick ever?
“It is right now,” Dawson said. “I’ve waited a long time to win a playoff game.”
Harbaugh said he shared a special moment afterward with the kicker, looking at the joy in Dawson’s eyes – “You could tell he’s just happier maybe than he’ll ever be and he’ll remember that for many years to come.”
Harbaugh, who brought in wrestler Ric Flair for an animated pep talk, became the first coach since 1970 to win 13 or more games, including the postseason, in each of his first three years.
By the end of a fun flight home, he had turned his focus to the Panthers.
In the last game against Carolina, the 49ers lost a pair of key players on either side of the ball to concussions – Davis and rookie safety Eric Reid.
And Kaepernick has come a long way since that loss two months ago.
“He’s a tough guy, and a quarterback like that, you’ll do whatever for him,” running back Frank Gore said.
Having Crabtree back sure helps. The team’s top wideout from 2012 returned for the final five games of the regular season after recovering from a torn right Achilles tendon that required surgery in May.
“More dangerous,” Harbaugh said of the 49ers for the rematch with Crabtree and Davis, who left the first game early with a concussion, in the mix.