CHARLOTTE – Before the postseason began, members of the Panthers offense spoke about the need to fix their red zone execution.
They knew it could cost them when their season was on the line, and it did in Sunday's 23-10 loss to the 49ers.
"It came back to really pretty much decide the game," tight end Greg Olsen said.
The Panthers' first red zone opportunity came late in the first quarter, trailing 6-0. Carolina had first-and-goal at the 6-yard line. Fullback Mike Tolbert ran for three yards on first down, quarterback Cam Newton ran for two yards on second down and fullback Mike Tolbert was stopped for no gain on third down. Newton called his own number on fourth down and was stopped short of the goal line.
"You would like to obviously score a touchdown," Rivera said. "I thought we could hold them back there and make them punt and give us the chance to score a touchdown, and we did."
The defense forced a three-and-out with San Francisco backed up, and after a 24-yard punt return by Ted Ginn, Newton connected with wide receiver Steve Smith for a 31-yard touchdown on the first play of the next drive.
The second missed red zone opportunity was much more costly.
This time, with Carolina leading 7-6 in the second quarter, the Panthers had first-and-goal at the 7-yard line. Newton ran for six yards on first down, but the Panthers couldn't gain the last yard on the next two plays and settled for a 24-yard field goal.
"I'm only guessing," left tackle Jordan Gross said, "but I think we would've won the game if we got those (touchdowns)."
It may not have been a red zone chance, but the Panthers were equally frustrated by a drive that stalled inside the San Francisco 30-yard line with Carolina trailing 20-10 in the third quarter.
After a 5-yard pass to wide receiver Brandon LaFell gave Carolina a first down at the San Francisco 29-yard line, Newton threw an incompletion and was sacked twice, pushing the Panthers out of field goal range.
"To put those drives together on that defense and sustain first downs and move and move and get down to the 1-foot line twice and then inside the 30 and only get three points out of that – you are not going to be very successful with that recipe offensively," Olsen said.
QUESTIONABLE NO CALLS: The Panthers were frustrated by two no-calls by the officials. that occurred during San Francisco's touchdown drive at the end of the first half.
49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin was not penalized for unnecessary roughness despite clearly head-butting safety Mike Mitchell. Earlier in the game, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had been flagged for head-butting 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
"It's just ridiculous. A couple things weren't called the same way," Mitchell said. "It was the same exact thing you saw Captain Munnerlyn do."
Later in the drive, the officials did not penalize the 49ers for having 12 men in the huddle. The 12th man -- tight end Vance McDonald -- left the huddle and ran to the sideline, and cornerback Drayton Florence was penalized for pass interference on the ensuing play.
"I saw the player come off but I had not yet marked the ball ready for play, so that is why I did not call it as a foul," referee Carl Cheffers said. "The ball was not in play yet."
Said head coach Ron Rivera: "I thought (the call) was missed."
SMITH IMPACTFUL: Wide receiver Steve Smith's playing status was questionable throughout the week because of a knee injury, but there was never any question in Rivera's mind.
"I always knew he was (going to play)," Rivera said. "Steve is that kind of guy. He is a dynamic football player."
Smith scored Carolina's lone touchdown when he reeled in a 31-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
"It gave the quarterback a jolt, it gave Steve a jolt and gave the crowd a little bit of a jolt," Rivera said.
Smith finished with four catches for 74 yards but was only targeted once after halftime.
"In the second half, they made some adjustments, we made some adjustments as well, but they made more plays than us," Smith said.