CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Panthers were prepared to win Sunday's NFC Divisional playoff game vs. the 49ers. They were capable of winning, but ultimately got outfoxed down the stretch -- thanks to a number of wrinkles and adjustments from the Mad Pleater himself, Jim Harbaugh.
It gets lost in the shuffle of his general insanity, but Harbaugh is a really, really good football coach. Sunday's 23-10 win over Carolina gives him his third-straight NFC Championship Game berth, having made it to the NFL's Final Four every single season that he's coached the 49ers.
And if you don't think Harbaugh is kind of nuts, well ...
It's actually quarterbacks who make the football world go round, but you can't discount how much a big-time coach brings to a game. These guys make their money on preparation and adjustments and no one adjusted better Sunday than Harbaugh and his staff.
49ers Third Downs
Panthers Third Downs
Cam Newton YPA
Steve Smith Receiving Yds
Frank Gore Rushing Yds
Anquan Boldin Receiving Yds
And there were more reasons, including:
• A night-and-day performance from Colin Kaepernick.
• The 49ers recognizing that the Panthers secondary had "jumped some shorter routes" by Boldin and sending the wideout deep on a slant and go.
• The Niners lining up Ahmad Brooks at middle linebacker throughout the game (as well as Vic Fangio playing chess to Mike Shula's checkers) and much, much more.
Kaepernick's delineation isn't as clear as the periods; the drive leading to halftime gave the Niners a lead they never surrendered. It put the Panthers in the unfortunate position of playing from behind despite having been the better team in the first half.
They never responded and the score and stats got ugly. That's what happens when a one team blanks another over the second half of a game. Harbaugh was proud of the performance, understandably.
"It was a great football game, no question about it. It was a physical struggle. I'm proud of our team for prevailing," Harbaugh said. "You're proud of your team when they do that, when you go out on the road and in a playoff game and beat another team that's a very good football team in their stadium.
"Yes, it does make you feel like a strong, mighty man."
Hard to blame the guy for being confident, right? Harbaugh's sporting 5-2 record in the postseason and a plus-32 point differential for his career. His only losses are an overtime defeat to the Giants in overtime of 2011's NFC title game and the infamous blackout Super Bowl loss to the Ravens last season.
Not many people have it better than him.
• Much was made about Colin Kaepernick's decision to bust out the Superman celebration after he scored a rushing touchdown on a read-option play in the second half.
Cam Newton wanted no part of the discussion.
"That's not the first time and it won't be the last," Newton said when asked whether he was mad.
Kaep clearly thought it was more personal, noting that it was "just a little shout out."
"I think you know the answer."
• Ron Rivera would get my vote for Coach of the Year in 2013, though Sunday wasn't his finest effort. He correctly attempted one fourth-and-goal -- even though it failed, it was still the right move. (And the Panthers eventually held serve, got the ball back and scored.) But he kicked on another fourth near the end zone and the three points ended up being the last Carolina would get all game. 10 points was never winning this game.
Additionally, the Panthers were ... sloppy's not the word. Because they did a fairly good job of protecting the ball and executing in certain areas. But on defense, they handed the 49ers at least 10 free points early on. There was the head-butt call on Captain Munnerlyn that gave San Francisco a free first down and a late hit by Mike Mitchell that extended an early 49ers drive.
Rivera was at least willing to shoulder some of the blame.
"Some bad things happened out there," Rivera said. "You wish we would have kept our composure out there a little bit better but one thing we don't want is to be pushed around. But at the same time [we] have to learn and understand. We have to maintain our composure and that falls on me as the head coach."
Whether you want to tack it on as inexperience in the postseason or whatever, Carolina wasn't composed early on. A lot of dumb penalties and mistakes cost them a bunch of yards, some points and altered the way the game played out.
• Shula's play-calling's been good for large stretches this season. But I didn't care for what he did down in the red zone with Newton. If you end up at the 1-yard line on a designed run, why not have it set up for a no-huddle quarterback sneak? The Patriots use that with Tom Brady all the time and it's extremely effective. Carolina could do the same thing, but was slow and methodical down by the end zone, giving the 49ers time to set up shop on defense. When you're going against a dominant front seven that's not going to work.
• Tons of people wanted to freak out over Harbaugh being on the field during a touchdown from Kaepernick to Vernon Davis:
Don't freak too much. Harbaugh's technically violating the same rule that Mike Tomlin was fined $100,000 for, but as NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino previously noted when discussing Tomlin's situation, the league is much less concerned about coaches behind the play, as was Harbaugh in this case.
For Harbaugh's part, he said he "saw the officials say incomplete" pass to Davis (it was later overturned) but that the clock kept on moving, so he "ran out to call, for them to see the scoreboard and it ticked 7,6,5, as he was throwing the flag on me, but I was just trying to get somebody's attention to look at the scoreboard."
The picture above kind of tells a different story. Whatever.
• Turns out Newton actually played a large part in one of those play calls. He didn't call the play, but he said he "pressured" the coaching staff to let him run it.
"I went over to the sideline and told Coach I felt as if I could go into the end zone with the quarterback sneak, and I put a lot of pressure on him to call the play," Newton said. "He put it in my hands to call it. The play didn't work out the way it was planned, so I felt as if I failed him in that type of way."
• You probably haven't seen the last of the Steve Smith yet. Asked whether or not he'd be back, No. 89 said he had a pregnant wife to tend to (he had a kid in the locker room with a "Lil Smitty" jersey; I would've taken a picture but I didn't want to get thumped in the head).