CHARLOTTE, N.C – Anquan Boldin came sprinting off the field screaming as soon as the game ended, his mouth wide in a huge grin, his tongue hanging slightly out. It was as if he had stolen the game and was running away.
In a way, he had.
After Boldin got dressed and stepped behind the microphone to address the media following the San Francisco 49ers' 23-10 NFC divisional playoff victory against the Carolina Panthers, quarterback Colin Kaepernick entered the room, borrowed a Bay Area reporter's notebook, and scribbled notes as his teammate spoke.
On the eve of their battle with the Seattle Seahawks and the ear-splitting 12th Man next week, the 49ers are getting louder and louder. They humbled the Panthers on Sunday with goal-line stands, end zone taunts, finger wags and even demonstrative sideline pirouettes from their irascible head coach. They apologized for none of it. They want more. They want Seattle.
"I'm just ready to play ball," said Boldin's counterpart, Michael Crabtree. "I don't even look at it as the NFC championship. I'm looking at it like we are playing the Seattle Seahawks. We just finished this game and I'm looking forward to the next one."
This is not the same team from last year's NFC title game, and not the same team from the NFC title game of 2012. It's not even the same team that got crushed 29-3 in Seattle in September. The Niners have energy on offense that's bubbling over during and after games, and that energy is more visible than it's been during the entire Jim Harbaugh regime. Crabtree has been in the lineup for seven straight weeks now opposite Boldin, and the Niners have scored 23 or more points in every single game except one: a 19-17 win over the Seahawks. They are 7-0 with that duo.
The change in the San Francisco offense is told in the two games against Carolina: in Week 10, the Niners' receiving leaders were Mario Manningham with 30 yards, Boldin with 23 and Frank Gore with 21. Boldin had nearly that many on one drive Sunday.
The Niners' defense has been notably tough for years now. That's their hallmark, showed again by two goal-line stands Sunday that yielded only three points and reversed the course of a game that looked like something Carolina could win. There is nothing novel about a bruising defense in San Francisco, any more than there is anything surprising about big hitters waiting in Seattle.
What's ramped up late this season is the mental toughness on offense. Kaepernick took plenty of hits in the Super Bowl last February against the Baltimore Ravens, and he has seemed to emerge stronger for it this year. "He's transformed into one of the elite quarterbacks in the league," Niners guard Alex Boone said. "You love a guy like that." It was Kaepernick who mocked Cam Newton's Superman touchdown celebration on Sunday, buttoning up an imagined Clark Kent suit as if putting it away for the summer. Only moments later, he was directing a defender's attention toward the scoreboard, which had more opponents' points Sunday than in any other game this season since Week 2.
Boone said he didn't see Kaepernick's celebration, "thank god," but refused to tamp down the enthusiasm. "You gotta enjoy it," he said. "He's earned the right."
Chirping Seahawks should take note. "I'm not just going to let you say anything you want to me," Kaepernick said. "If you are going to say something to me, I am going to respond."
Kaepernick, only a second-year QB with Alex Smith looming over his shoulder last season, wasn't this secure in his knowledge or in his down-field options. That's in part because of Boldin, who has the Super Bowl ring from the Ravens that every 49er wants. Boldin is not fast or flashy, but he is difficult to beat in a fight for the ball. He showed that Sunday with 136 yards against a secondary known for bullying receivers. Boldin gave it right back to the Carolina corners, both physically and verbally, baiting them into penalties and other mistakes.
After the Panthers went three-and-out to start the second half, Kaepernick found Boldin for a 16-yard pass to get near midfield and then a 45-yard pass to get down to the goal line. Kaepernick scored on the next play, pushing the lead to 20-10, and the Panthers never got closer. When asked at his locker why this year's team is different than those that played for NFC titles before, tight end Vernon Davis said, "We added value. We added Anquan Boldin."
Boldin and Crabtree give Kaepernick a dual weapon that Russell Wilson does not have – especially if Percy Harvin is injured. On Saturday, in Seattle's 23-15 win against the New Orleans Saints, Wilson had only 103 yards passing, most of which came on three plays. That discrepancy between the teams, if it holds up next week, will mean more than home-field advantage. When you add Davis to the mix, there is arguably no receiving corps left in the playoffs as difficult to match-up against as San Francisco's.
The Niners who are known for winning wars of attrition may be gone. On Sunday, they won a war of words and a war of weapons. They are feeling it now, blood at a ready boil. And next Sunday, the crowd in Seattle will not be the only group prepared to make noise.