What do you think was the difference in the Panthers-49ers game? Defense, offense or the refs? – Jordan in Charlotte
The Panthers win as a team and lose as a team - a cliché but one with plenty of truth behind it. Multiple players on offense said in the days leading up to the NFC Divisional Playoff that 10 points wouldn't be enough to win like it was at San Francisco in Week 10. Lo and behold, Carolina again scored 10 points, and it wasn't enough. There were opportunities for more. The fourth-and-goal stop of Cam Newton on a quarterback sneak was a major talking point, but it was virtually nullified when the defense, special teams and Newton/Steve Smith immediately bounced back to score a touchdown on a short field. Bigger were the 49ers' two stops from the 1 that forced Carolina to settle for a field goal late in the first half. The other lost opportunity that stood out came late in the third quarter, when an eight-minute drive that looked destined to make it a one-score game ended with back-to-back sacks and a punt.
The defense again made life difficult for the 49ers on the whole but made life easy for them at crucial junctures. San Francisco's two early field goals were made possible by defensive penalties that head coach Ron Rivera called "unfortunate," and the defense missed chances to get off the field on third down on the 49ers' touchdown drives just before and after halftime.
Officiating impacted some of those missed chances. It was a frustrating first half along those lines, with the Panthers being flagged for a head butt but the 49ers avoiding a flag for the same; close calls on Mike Mitchell and Drayton Florence going against Carolina; and a 12 men in the huddle call not being made on the 49ers.
Carolina was the better team in the first half, but it didn't show on the scoreboard. San Francisco was the better team in the second half, and it did show on the scoreboard.
Why can't Carolina ever win the tough games? – Robert in Hendersonville, N.C.
A playoff loss is tough to take, but I'm going to have to throw a flag on your suggestion that this team couldn't win tough games. The win at San Francisco certainly qualifies, as do the dramatic drives to beat New Orleans and New England in massive games at home. The physical victory over the St. Louis Rams was tough in its own way, as was a gutsy road victory against Miami following wins over San Francisco and New England victories as well as the NFC South-clinching triumph at Atlanta.
In my opinion, this Panthers squad was the definition of a tough team. So were the 49ers, who just happen to be the team still standing.
What do you think allowed the team to become 12-4 following consecutive sub-.500 seasons? – Wasseem in Montreal
The team's mental toughness and chemistry can't be overlooked as factors, nor can wise decisions by general manager Dave Gettleman, such as the signing of free agents like Mitchell and Ted Ginn. But perhaps above all, the success of the season was about a cohesive unit integrating its talents with a rapidly maturing coaching staff and quarterback.
Simply put, this team was as prepared from a game planning standpoint as any I've been around. Rivera, named Coach of the Year by the Professional Football Writers of America on Thursday and a candidate for the Associated Press award, reached a new level of understanding about what it takes to win in the NFL. The positive impact of continuity on the staffs of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Mike Shula was obvious. And none of it would have been possible without Newton, whose learning curve straightened significantly in his third year.
Hey guys, y'all do a great job of keeping us well-informed. Now that our season is over, we have a lot of things to be proud of and to get better at. What would you say would be our top three priorities going into the draft and offseason? – Kevin in Charlotte
From a position standpoint, the Panthers will want to solidify the situation on the offensive line, at wide receiver and in the secondary. Figuring out the plan for those three positions (and the rest of the roster for that matter) will be a three-pronged process. The first phase is already under way, with Gettleman embarking on a deep evaluation of each player on the roster. The second phase – already under way as well – will be accessing the talent available via the college draft and free agency. Then, once the heart of the 2014 roster is assembled, attention will turn to preparing the players for next season, a phase that will include some player movement throughout.
NFL storylines have become a 24/7/365 undertaking, and we'll be here throughout the offseason to bring you those stories.