CHARLOTTE - You let Colin Kaepernick run around long enough, he's going to cause you some serious problems. On Sunday, Kaepernick and the 49ers shook off an erratic first half to defeat the Carolina Panthers 23-10. San Francisco now advances to face Seattle in the NFC championship.
Cam Newton and the Panthers had the 49ers in check for most of the first half of Sunday's divisional playoff. But when they needed scores the most, the Panthers couldn't push the ball in from the one yard line. On two separate occasions, the Panthers had the ball within fall-forward distance of the end zone, and scored a grand total of 3 points.
The 49ers, meanwhile, took advantage of the Panthers' overexuberance and some advantageous referee calling to scramble to a 13-10 halftime lead, and from there it was Kaepernick's show. He began San Francisco's first drive of the second half by driving 77 yards, a drive capped when he called his own number for a touchdown and extended San Francisco's lead to 10 points.
Newton, meanwhile, had the kind of insanely frustrating game that will give his critics an entire offseason's worth of fuel. He was erratic but occasionally exceptional in the first half, and team-killing in the second. Nowhere was this more apparent than late in the fourth quarter, when Newton had marched the Panthers deep into 49er territory before throwing a backbreaking interception to Donte Whitner.
For Carolina, this will lead to an offseason of frustrating questions with few answers. What went wrong with this team that finished the season 11-1 and hotter than any in football? Is this a Super Bowl-quality team, or one that has maximized its potential?
For San Francisco, the concerns are much more immediate: how to beat Seattle in seven days.