I’m not talking “not there yet” from a talent standpoint. The Panthers have one of the best defenses in the league, led by a front seven that includes Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Carolina has former #1 overall pick Cam Newton at QB – who is only getting better – and the ageless Steve Smith at WR. And head coach Ron Rivera, aka “Riverboat Ron” had proved to be a more than capable coach down the stretch.
I’m talking about “not there yet” in terms of the intangibles.
From start to finish, it was more than obvious that the Panthers did not have the playoff experience as the 49ers did. Did you count how many personal foul penalties the Panthers had (there were at least four)? Hell, they had two on the first drive of the game that led to a 49ers field goal.
The Niners got in the Panthers’ heads. It started right after San Francisco beat the Green Bay Packers in the wildcard round the week before when Niners’ QB Colin Kaepernick said that “we owe them (the Panthers)”. Kaep and the Niners wanted to let the Panthers know that they have been put on notice from the 10-9 Carolina win at Candlestick Park earlier in the season. And the Panthers got over-hyped, got taken out of their game, and later lost the game.
In short, the Niners mind-fucked the Panthers.
In spite of the bad loss to the Niners, the future is bright for Carolina. Every professional team, no matter the sport, goes through similar growing pains in order to get to the promised land. Carolina is relatively young (except for Smith and Davis), and they are only going to get better.
The Panthers’ time will come – just not this season.