But the question remains: Are they good enough to advance further in the NFC postseason?
They’ll face a big challenge in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday when they face the Carolina Panthers.
When the Panthers played at Candlestick on Nov. 10, they emerged with a 10-9 win in a game that was painful to watch. Both quarterbacks, the Panthers’ Cam Newton and the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, were dismal. Newton was terrible in the early going, though he hit some passes late as the Panthers scored the game’s only touchdown.
I have no idea what Newton’s problems were, but Kaepernick has often struggled against good defensive teams. He didn’t face one two days ago in Green Bay. The Packers did not have a strong defense during the season, and they went into this game without linebacker Clay Mathews, their best defender. Then, they lost defensive players to injuries during the game, injuries that certainly weren’t helped by the frozen turf.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers tried gambling strategies, sometimes blitzing, sometimes showing blitz, then having defenders drop back in coverage.
That sometimes worked — Kaepernick was sacked three times for a loss of 13 yards Sunday — but other times, Kaepernick took advantage of the weak spots, usually by running.
Even then, he had some problems. Early in the second quarter, with absolutely no pressure on him, he threw an interception which stopped a 49ers drive and seemed to inspire the Packers, who drove down field for a touchdown.
But Kaepernick and the Niners caught a huge break on their last drive when a Packers defensive back dropped a would-be interception. Had he hung on, it would have been the Packers with a dramatic end-of-the-game score to win it.
That’s how close the two teams were, with one decisive break determining winner and loser, and it’s also a cautionary tale for 49ers fans this next weekend, when they’ll be facing a tough defensive team on the Panthers’ home field.
The Panthers started slowly with three losses in their first four games but they’ve only lost once since then, to the Saints in New Orleans, a loss they avenged with a victory at home that secured a division title and the same 12-4 record as the 49ers.
Like Kaepernick, Newton is a multi-talented quarterback who is dangerous running the ball or passing it. They’re both in their third pro year, though they came to their teams in much different fashion: Newton was the first pick in the 2011 draft and the immediate starter while Kaepernick was a second-round pick by the Niners who backed up Alex Smith initially.
Kaepernick has already been to one Super Bowl. This is Newton’s first real chance to get to one, though the Seattle Seahawks will probably block his way.
But not the Niners. Their miracle finishes will end Sunday in Charlotte.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.