CHARLOTTE – Here are the grades for the 49ers’ 23-10 divisional playoff win over the Panthers.
KAEPERNICK: A-. He played terribly before the 49ers defense made their second goal line stand but, then again, most of the Niners played terribly before the second stand. After that, Kaepernick and the rest of the Niners were just about unstoppable. Kaepernick accounted for two touchdowns – a pass to Vernon Davis while rolling to the right, and a 4-yard touchdown run on a read-option play. On both plays, Kaepernick benefitted from the Panthers’ strong safety, Quintin Mikell, being out because he injured his foot. Kaepernick finished with an 87.8 passer rating despite not turning the ball over. Kaepernick’s rating wasn’t higher because he was inaccurate – 15-for-28. And he was inaccurate because he didn’t consistently set his feet and step into his throws.
RUNNING BACKS: A-. If you take away Frank Gore’s 39 yard run, he gained just gained 45 yards on 16 carries – 2.8 yards per carry. But his 39-yard run was one of the key plays of the game, it came against a fully stacked box and Gore gets tremendous credit for that. Breaking through stacked boxes for 30 or 40-yard gains has been Gore’s signature this season. Great signature to have. Gore played well considering the Panthers are tough against the run, and they injured fullback Will Tukuafu early in the game.
WIDE RECEIVERS: A-. The Panthers couldn’t stop Anquan Boldin. He finished with 8 catches on 12 targets for 136 yards. In the second quarter, Boldin made three catches on the 49ers first touchdown drive and drew a pass interference penalty on the Panthers in the end zone, setting up a touchdown to Vernon Davis two plays later. In the third quarter, Boldin beat a blown coverage and caught a 45-yard pass before he got caught and tackled at the Panthers’ 2 yard line. Michael Crabtree caught one 20-yard pass a couple short passes, and Quinton Patton caught on the first drive of the game when the Panthers forgot to cover him.
TIGHT ENDS: A-. The only tight end who caught a pass was Vernon Davis, and it was a one-yard touchdown. Davis did a great job dragging his second foot in bounds on that catch. Since Crabtree came back, he and Boldin and Gore have moved the 49ers’ offense down the field. But Davis has been the Niners’ No.1 touchdown threat by far. Without him, the 49ers kick field goals.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-. They gave up one sack early and no sacks after that. They got better as the game went on.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A. They shut down the Panthers’ running backs, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. And the 49ers’ defensive line knocked the Panthers’ offensive line back on every single play during the two goal line stands. That was the turning point of the game. Without those stands, the Panthers could have scored 21 points in the first half.
LINEBACKERS: A+. Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman were unbelievable. Brooks tackled Cam Newton for no gain on fourth-and-1 during the first goal line stand, and tackled Newton for no gain on second-and-1 during the second stand. Bowman tackled Mike Tolbert for a one-yard loss on third-and-1 during the second stand. And two plays before, Bowman tackled Newton one yard away from the goal line after a six-yard run around the left end. If Brooks or Bowman had missed any of those tackles, the 49ers may not have won. Bowman and Brooks made other great plays. The Panthers were down 10 points toward the end of the third quarter and they were at the 49ers’ 29 yard line, in field goal range. First, Bowman blitzed and sacked Newton for an 8-yard loss. Next play, Brooks sacked Newton for another 8-yard loss and the Panthers had to punt. And I didn’t even mention Patrick Willis. He had 11 tackles and an interception. This is the first A+ I’ve given all season.
SECONDARY: B. They gave up a 64 percent completion rate, 10.7 yards per pass attempt, 9 passing first downs, a 60 percent third-down-conversion rate and a touchdown. That’s not good. Tarell Brown gave up the touchdown – a deep pass to Steve Smith. Brown ran stride-for-stride with Smith, but Brown never turned his head to find the ball. Donte Whitner boosts this unit’s grade with his game-ending interception.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C. Phil Dawson was perfect again. LaMichael James didn’t try to return any punts or kicks. The 49ers’ kick coverage team gave up a 24-yard punt return to Ted Ginn Jr. And Andy Lee bounced a pass to a wide open Kassim Osgood.
COACHING: A. In the first half, the Panthers moved the ball on the 49ers no problem – 7.5 yards per play. Gaudy. Vic Fangio adjusted and, in the second half, his defense held the Panthers to zero points. Fangio has been one of the best coordinators in the NFL this season. He doesn’t get enough credit. The 49ers’ offense struggled in the first half, too, averaging just 3.9 yards per play. But as soon as the Panthers took a 10-6 lead in the second quarter, Greg Roman became Super Greg Roman. On the offense’s next three drives, almost every call Roman made worked, the 49ers marched down the field three-straight times, scored 17 points and put the game away. Also, give Jim Harbaugh credit for properly preparing his team. The Panthers’ head coach, Ron Rivera, did not properly prepare his team. They were nuts in the first half, committing dumb penalty after dumb penalty. Overall, the Panthers committed five penalties that resulted in first downs for the 49ers. And when the Panthers failed two times to punch the ball into the end zone, they folded. The Panthers were trying to prove to themselves they were the tougher team, but they weren’t. Give Harbaugh credit. The 49ers didn’t come out over-hyped trying to prove themselves. The truth revealed itself. The 49ers were tougher, more prepared and more composed than the Panthers.