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Anthony Ly | January 15, 2014

The Booth Review - 49ers vs. Panthers

"We're one step closer to where we want to be."

Welcome back to The Booth Review. The San Francisco 49ers move into the Final Four after staving off Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. What lies ahead? Read on.

San Francisco's first offensive play of the day was an unsurprising handoff to Frank Gore.

What was surprising was the result.

Across the way, defensive end Charles Johnson cut past tackle Anthony Davis, barreled into the backfield, and speared Gore onto his back for a loss.

On the very next play, Colin Kaepernick rolled right and found Michael Crabtree by the sideline.  Just as Crabtree caught the ball, he began to turn upfield but was met immediately by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn who swung him around backwards and headfirst into the ground.

Just two plays and 40 seconds into regulation, we found out exactly what type of game we were getting.  From start to finish, it was hard hits, louder pops, and the kind of bad blood you would only find among the most heated divisional rivals.

As I wrote last week, many expected this game to be a defensive battle, and it more than lived up to its billing.

Take, for instance, San Francisco's first two offensive drives.  On their opening drive, they got all the way down to Carolina's own 24-yard line, just outside of the red zone but still within striking distance.  A sack by standout linebacker Luke Kuechly stopped the drive in its tracks, and San Francisco had to settle for a field goal.

Their second drive produced similarly underwhelming results.  This time, they got to Carolina's 15-yard line, but still, San Francisco could only muster their second field goal of the game to put themselves up, 6-0.

The Panthers defense deserves plenty of credit for holding fast, but the Niners would not be outdone.

Towards the end of the first quarter, Cam Newton got his offense down to first-and-goal at the six-yard line.  Read that one more time.  First-and-goal at the six-yard line.

On their first attempt, Mike Tolbert rumbled forward for three yards.  On their second attempt, Newton tried his hand with a designed quarterback keeper and got down to the one-yard line.  On their third attempt, it was Tolbert again, but he got bottled up fast by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

The Panthers faced fourth-and-inches at the goal line.  What do you think a guy named 'Riverboat Ron' would do? Newton took the ball and fired forward trying headfirst for the endzone, but he dove right into the arms of one Ahmad Brooks who would stop him short.

Carolina faced another first-and-goal situation again halfway through the second quarter.  Newton ran a bootleg left upfield and would have almost certainly punched it in for the score were it not for an exceptional play by Bowman.  The 2013 All-Pro linebacker tracked Newton the entire way before splitting two Panthers' offensive linemen to make the tackle.  Newton was taken down at the one-yard line with Bowman's arms around his waist.

"Winners stay and play, losers go home. We want to keep playing." - Jim Harbaugh

Neither Newton nor Tolbert could cover the single yard over the next two downs.  On fourth down, 'Riverboat Ron' folded and settled for the field goal.

Twice Carolina found first-and-goal and twice they were denied entry.

In last week's preview, I also mentioned how, in defensive dogfights such as this one, the outcome could very well come down to the performance of the quarterbacks.  In that regard, Newton undoubtedly started the game as the stronger of the two.  His passes were near-perfect (save for a deflected throw that was intercepted).  His pocket presence was otherworldly.  For the most part, he put the ball exactly where it needed to be, and when the window wasn't open, he knew when to take off with his legs.

Kaepernick, on the other hand, looked unsettled and unsure of himself.  Passes were erratic and inconsistent.  San Francisco found momentum early on, but it slowly bled out until the end of the second quarter.

Fortunately, the script was flipped in the second half -- Cam cooled off and Kap heated up.  It was a difference of night and day.  What happened after the inversion of quality quarterback play?  Carolina was held to zero, zilch, nada points in the second half, and San Francisco dropped 10 more unanswered.

Onward!

(Photo credit: Grant Halverson)

Back to Seattle

Isn't this what we all kind of expected?

"We’re a great team. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to get this ring." - Frank Gore

The Seattle Seahawks whooped the Niners back in September, 29-3.  San Francisco evened the series with a narrow 19-17 victory last month.  Now, the freshly-crowned NFC West champion Seahawks host the Niners in the dreaded rubber match for -- in Jim Harbaugh's words -- "the ultimate chance".

It's okay to be nervous.  I know I am.  Who wouldn't be considering the stage and, more importantly, the stakes?  Seattle holds a staggering combined win/loss record of 16-1 at CenturyLink Field over the last two seasons including the playoffs.

Daunting?  Absolutely.  Impossible?  Absolutely not.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as we head towards Championship Sunday.

  • CONDITIONS: As of Wednesday morning, the weather conditions in Seattle are just what you would expect.  By kickoff, it should be right around 39 degrees, a 20-percent chance of precipitation, and winds at 4 mph.  As was the case against Carolina, we can expect a strong defensive performance by both teams.  We saw how the steady precipitation affected last week's Wildcard game against the SaintsDrew Brees couldn't handle a slick ball, and the Saints typically-prolific passing game was completely stymied.  Colin Kaepernick never exhibited problems in rain games, but it's still something to consider.  And negligible wind conditions bode well for both teams' kickers.  It may very well come down to a last second field goal to win the game just like their last meeting.
  • INJURIES: Both Seattle and San Francisco share notable injuries heading into Sunday.  Wide receiver Percy Harvin's status is still unclear after being knocked out of last week's game against the Saints.  Harvin sustained some pretty big hits including two that resulted in concussion tests.  His presence on Sunday, or lack thereof, could be pretty significant considering San Francisco's injuries in the secondary.  Cornerback Carlos Rogers missed last week's game in Carolina and his status is also uncertain.  If Harvin plays and Rogers doesn't, San Francisco's defensive backfield could be in for a long day.

KEYS TO VICTORY

  1. Kap needs to get into a rhythm early --  Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16, Greg Roman dialed up some screen passes to Anquan Boldin, one of which he scored on.  We hadn't seen much of this before that game, but it was effective.  Kaepernick has a bad habit of starting games cold.  If Roman is smart, he'll call some easy short passes and screen plays to get Kap into a rhythm.
  2. Establish the running game and stick with it -- It might be a tall order considering Seattle's stout front-seven, but San Francisco will need a strong performance from their offensive line to establish Frank Gore in the running game.  The Niners will need those tough yards down the middle.  It has been statistically proven, time and time again, that San Francisco's most successful games start and end with a strong running game.
  3. Manage the clock and the crowd -- We all know about CenturyLink Field's reputation as the most raucous stadium in all of sports.  Consider the fact that they'll be hosting their most hated rival with tickets to the Super Bowl on the line, and you know the place will be rockin'.  Game clock and timeout management issues have plagued the Niners' offense all year.  The coaches will need to do their very best to prepare for it, even if it means installing a pair of Beats By Dre headphones into Kap's helmet.  The team that stays and plays poised will be the team that advances.

About the Author

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49ers Faithful. Sports blogger. Musician. Microbrew enthusiast. Follow me on Twitter @AnthonyLy49.

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