CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The San Francisco 49ers say they have gotten healthy at the right time.
And they think they demonstrated that Sunday by grinding out a rough and rugged 23-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
“We’re healthy; we’re playing great ball,” running back Frank Gore said. “… We feel like this is the year. We feel like we’re built to go on the road. We’re a physical team. We’ll do whatever it takes. We’ve got to go to Seattle. We know it’s going to be a dogfight, but we’re built for this.”
The defending NFC champions will meet the Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl.
“This is a tournament much like playground basketball: Winners stay and play, losers go home,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We want to keep playing.”
The win in Carolina was revenge and reversal from a Nov.10 regular-season meeting when the Panthers went to San Francisco and won, 10-9. The Niners are quick to point out that Michael Crabtree didn’t play in that first game due to injury; Aldon Smith played just 12 snaps in this first game back from a five-week stay in a rehab center, and tight end Vernon Davis was knocked out of the game in the second quarter.
All of that changed in the Sunday rematch, when all those Niners were available, and all contributed.
Smith had a tackle, two assists and two quarterback hurries. Davis had one catch – a big one just before halftime that put San Francisco ahead to stay. Crabtree had three catches, and his presence made things easier for Anquan Boldin, who had a game-high eight receptions.
“It definitely makes a difference having Crab out there,” Boldin said. “Crab is a weapon for our offense. He opens things up for so many guys.”
Another beneficiary was quarterback Colin Kaepernick who completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He also ran for 15 yards, including the 7-yard touchdown keeper in the third quarter that expanded the Niners’ lead to 20-10. Once in the end zone, Kaepernick performed the “Superman” touchdown celebration usually performed by Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
“Just a little shout out,” Kaepernick said.
To who, he was asked?
“I think you know the answer,” he responded.
Newton seemed to know.
“It’s not the first time and won’t be the last time that somebody does that,” he said.
Newton passed for 267 yards and a touchdown, and led the Panthers with 54 rushing yards. But he also threw two interceptions. And he opened the second quarter by failing to get the single yard needed to give his team the lead.
San Francisco had opened the game with drives of 49 and 31 yards that produced field goals.
The Panthers got things going on their second possession, moving from their own 34 to the Niners 1. Facing a fourth-and-goal there, Newton talked his coaches into giving him a chance, and he was stopped by Ahmad Brooks.
“I felt I could go in the end zone with a quarterback sneak, and I put a lot of pressure on (coach Ron Rivera) to call the play, and he put it in my hands to call it,” Newton said. “The play didn’t work out the way it was planned, so I felt I failed him.”
Still, the Panthers took the lead minutes later, when Newton hit Steve Smith on a 31-yard touchdown.
And then they built the advantage to 10-6 on a 24-yard field goal.
However, San Francisco reclaimed the lead 5 seconds before halftime when Kaepernick hit Davis in the back corner of the end zone from a yard out. Davis was initially ruled out of bounds, but that was reversed when a replay showed he had gotten both feet down in on the black paint of the Carolina end zone.
“I was trying to argue from the get-go that was a touchdown,” Kaepernick said. “I was positive he got both feet in.”
Carolina went three-and-out to open the second half, while the Niners’ next possession went 77 yards for the touchdown that Kaepernick capped with his message for Newton.
“It was a big momentum swing,” Kaepernick said. “Coming out in the second half, we were confident with what we were doing.”
San Francisco closed things out by holding Carolina scoreless throughout the second half. And that put the Niners through to their date in Seattle when they will have another chance at revenge and reversal.