CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Forgive a moment of nostalgia: Pro football used to be like this. That’s not to say that football was better or worse in the days before high-flying offenses and 5,000-yard passing seasons (it was neither). It was just a little bit different. There weren’t as many dazzling plays, as many highlight moments, it was a time before GIFs plastered the Internet.
The tougher team, it seemed, would win most of the time.
That’s an absurd cliché, of course, “the tougher team.” What is tougher? What does that even mean? Tougher physically? Tougher mentally? Tougher emotionally? It wasn’t something we could quantify, exactly. But it was an inescapable part of the game in the 1960s and 1970s and so on. Teams, the great ones -- Lombardi’s Packers, the No-Name-Defense Dolphins, the Steel Curtain Steelers -- would come at opponents again and again and again until they relented, until they broke, until they melted down.
And, it seemed, in those days, the opponents ALWAYS melted down.
Football is different now. You probably know, this year was the highest scoring season in NFL history. Teams scored more points per game (23.4), completed more passes per game (21.7), picked up more first downs per game (19.9) and gained more total yards per game (348.5) than in any season ever. Peyton Manning threw for an absurd 55 touchdown passes. Drew Brees threw for 5,000 yards for the fourth time in his career. A guy who started the season as a backup, Nick Foles, finished with the third-highest passer rating in NFL history -- ahead of Tom Brady, Steve Young and Joe Montana’s best seasons.
Wide open. That’s football. The way to win in 2013 was by throwing like crazy and getting into the end zone as fast as possible and holding on for dear life. Fun. Thrilling. Different.
But it’s 2014 now. It’s January now. And Sunday in Charlotte, the San Francisco 49ers crunched the Carolina Panthers not by out-scheming them or outflanking them or throwing over the top. Their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick did not throw for 300 yards -- heck, he didn’t throw for 200. He only threw one touchdown pass. San Francisco only scored two.
No, the 49ers crunched the Panthers 23-10 because they were the tougher team. In an emotional game, they committed fewer penalties. In a physical game, they committed no turnovers. In a close game, they made the stop on fourth-and-one. In a bruising game, they shut out the Panthers in the second half.
“It was a real arm-wrestling kind of game,” San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said.
“We know how to play in those kinds of games,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis added. “We’ve been in our share.”
The NFC Championship Game on Sunday between Seattle and San Francisco probably does not have the buzz and excitement factor of New England at Denver -- Tom Brady and Peyton Manning yet again -- but it might have the two best teams in football.
Seattle and San Francisco win games with a formula that come out of the game’s past. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was 16th in the NFL in passing yard, Kaepernick was 20th. Neither team was top five in points scored. They pound the ball with bruising running backs, protect the ball, play otherworldly defense and force turnovers the crazy. They get into team’s psyches.
Sunday’s game in Charlotte was instructive. You know what might have been the biggest series of plays for San Francisco? Well, you could pick any number of them. In the first half, Carolina had fourth and goal from the one, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton called his own number, and got stuffed short of the goal line. You could pick the touchdown pass at the end of the first half, Kaepernick to Vernon Davis, which was first ruled no catch and then overturned on replay.
But, I think it was something more boring than that. I think it was the first three plays of the second half. The 49ers, as mentioned, had scored just before the half to take a 13-10 lead. But Carolina got the ball to open up the second half, and the crowd was pumped. Carolina had probably played better than San Francisco in that first half. The game was very much in play.
First play: Handoff to DeAngelo Williams for 3 yards. Glenn Dorsey pulled him down.
Second play: Handoff to DeAngelo Williams for 3 yards. Patrick Willis stuffed him.
Third play: Cam Newton pass to Steve Smith that wasn’t even close.
And that was it. Three and out, and it felt faster than a Usain Bolt sprint. You could hear the escaping of air throughout the stadium. You could sense the deflation on the Panthers sideline. The game had fundamentally changed. “Huge,” 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman would say. The 49ers got the punt and then drove 77 yards for a touchdown, the last play a four-yard run by Kaepernick. He promptly impersonated Cam Newton’s Superman move -- it seems he still resents being a second-round pick the year Newton was taken first overall.
“Just a little shoutout,” Kaepernick said.
“To who?” he was asked.
“You know,” he said.
San Francisco led by 10 but it might as well have been 50. Carolina would not score the rest of the game.
“Playoff football is played at a different speed,” a bewildered Cam Newton would say after the game. “I found that out today.”
Carolina imploded. It was a great season for the Panthers -- “We became a football team this year,” Coach Ron Rivera would say -- but found out how much more they still have to do to become an elite team. Newton threw a couple of bad interceptions. Panthers corner Josh Thomas threw a punch late in the game that prevented Carolina from getting the ball back. The defense, after bottling up Gore for most of the game -- the Panthers have a fantastic defense too -- wilted and gave up 54 yards to him on one long drive in the fourth quarter (the drive lasted 7:58).
After the game, people kept asking Newton and Rivera if this was a reflection of Carolina’s inexperience. Both said they didn’t think so. I think that’s right. It wasn’t inexperience that drained the Panthers of their spirit and energy and composure. It was an old-fashioned San Francisco team that does everything well, hits everything hard, and never slackens or breaks down. “Those guys didn’t make those penalties,” Newton said with some frustration after the game.
“We talked about it all week,” San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin said of playing with self-control in the playoffs. When reporters mentioned to him that the game seemed particularly physical and chippy, he nodded and shrugged. That’s football, man. That’s football.
Everybody’s expecting something even more ferocious Sunday when the Seahawks and 49ers meet for the third time this season. You will remember that Seattle rolled the first time, and San Francisco won with a last-second field goal in the second. There will be the raucous Seattle crowd. There will be a red hot San Francisco team that has won eight in a row, including the last two playoff games on the road. There will be Seattle’s No. 1 ranked defense. There will be a San Francisco team appearing in its third consecutive conference championship.
“You know what it’s going to be up there,” Bowman said. “You know. There’s nothing else to say.”