CHARLOTTE – From 1-3 and left for dead to 12-4 and a first round bye. This was a memorable season for the Carolina Panthers, even if the ending is one they hope to soon forget.
Carolina's season concluded with a 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC Divisional Playoff on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Quarterback Cam Newton put it best: "This is a terrible ending to a great season."
One of the high points of the season came in Week 10 when the Panthers defeated the 49ers, 10-9, at San Francisco. Ten points was enough to win that day. Today, however, it was far from enough.
"We made believers out of our fans after starting 1-3, and they responded with overwhelming support," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "The gift is a home playoff game, and when you don't win it's very bittersweet. It stings."
Especially since this is a game the Panthers felt they could win.
"We can beat that team. We can beat any team in this league," safety Mike Mitchell said. "Just didn't happen for us today."
San Francisco jumped out to a 6-0 lead courtesy of two field goals from Phil Dawson and costly Carolina penalties. Still, the Panthers appeared poised to take their first lead on the first play of the second quarter. But quarterback Cam Newton was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Fortunately for Carolina, the defense promptly forced a three-and-out. Ted Ginn then returned the punt 24 yards to the San Francisco 31-yard line. On the next play, Newton lofted a perfect pass down the sideline to Steve Smith for a 31-yard touchdown.
The Panthers were in prime position to score another touchdown on their next possession. But both Newton and fullback Mike Tolbert failed to score on runs from the 1-yard line, forcing Carolina to settle for a 24-yard Graham Gano field goal and a 10-6 lead.
"We just couldn't punch it in when we had to," tight end Greg Olsen said.
The 49ers proceeded to score in the closing seconds before halftime. A pass interference penalty on cornerback Drayton Florence – who was covering wide receiver Anquan Boldin – wiped out an incompletion on third-and-nine, giving San Francisco first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick connected with tight end Vernon Davis for a 1-yard touchdown two plays later.
The 49ers found the end zone again on their first drive of the third quarter after a Carolina three-and-out. Kaepernick exploited a busted coverage and connected with a wide open Boldin for a 45-yard gain to set up the score. Kaepernick then rushed for a 4-yard touchdown to build a 20-10 lead.
Going back to that Week 10 matchup, the Panthers hadn't allowed the 49ers to score a touchdown on 17 consecutive drives. The back-to-back touchdowns on either side of halftime were seemingly back-breaking.
"We just didn't make enough plays in the second half to win the game," Mitchell said. "A couple calls didn't go our way. Hats off to them. They did enough to win."
Davis' touchdown catch in the second quarter capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive. Kaepernick's touchdown run in the third quarter culminated an eight-play, 77-yard drive.
"We had opportunities to stop them," head coach Ron Rivera said, "and we didn't do that."
Dawson converted a 34-yard field goal to extend the San Francisco lead to 13 in the fourth quarter.
Carolina's comeback hopes were extinguished when Newton's pass Olsen was intercepted at the San Francisco 9-yard line by safety Donte Whitner with 4:22 left in the game.
"I'm disappointed for the guys in the locker room. It's hard. Those guys fought through everything. When things were down, they never quit," Rivera said. "This game is not indicative of what this season was all about. I was very proud of a lot of things that happened this year. I'm very excited going forward.
"We are going to grow and get better."