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First Down/Fourth Down: 49ers' defense leads the way to playoff win over Carolina

The 49ers made life miserable for Cam Newton (center), sacking him five times and twice picking him off. The 49ers made life miserable for Cam Newton (center), sacking him five times and twice picking him off. (Simon Bruty/SI)

The Carolina Panthers played up Sunday as a chance to silence their critics. The situation was a similar one for Cam Newton, in his first appearance on the postseason stage.

All of that may have overlooked just how dominant the San Francisco defense can be when it's on its game.

Just as in a 10-9 loss to the Panthers earlier this season, the 49ers made life for Newton absolutely miserable. They sacked Newton five times (2.5 by Ahmad Brooks) and picked him off twice, almost all the while -- save for a Newton-to-Steve Smith touchdown pass -- stifling what's been a dangerous Carolina attack. The Panthers missed a couple of opportunities early, which set the stage for the 49ers' relentless pass rush to overwhelm Newton's offensive line down the stretch.

It was the 49ers' linebacking corps of Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis that dominated, as it often has done over the past two seasons. Willis supplemented Brooks' terrific day with an interception and 11 tackles of his own; Bowman chipped in another 11 tackles (two for loss), plus a sack.

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The Panthers' surprising 2012 turnaround was sparked in large part by their front seven, and namely second-year LB Luke Kuechly. He had 10 tackles and an emphatic sack of Colin Kaepernick on Sunday. But the Carolina front seven was just second-best in this one, by a significant margin.

More observations from San Francisco's impressive 23-10 win:

First Down: Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.

Not that anyone needs this reminder, but Boldin was one of the driving forces behind Baltimore's Super Bowl run last season. He's in the midst of performing his magic again, with Sunday's eight-catch, 136-yard performance the latest example.

Having Davis alongside him in the passing game certainly doesn't hurt. The Panthers actually took Davis almost completely out of the game Sunday. Emphasis on "almost." Davis, who scored 13 TDs in the regular season, turned his lone grab in this one into a tip-toeing, 1-yard touchdown grab, which erased a 10-6 deficit and put his team ahead for good.

Fourth Down: Officiating.

Lather, rinse, repeat on the NFL's officiating problems. Unfortunately, the men in stripes stepped back into the spotlight Sunday with a series of questionable decisions. In the first half alone, the refs called Carolina for a headbutting personal foul, only to turn their backs on a similar infraction from Boldin; initially ruled Davis' touchdown catch incomplete, forcing the 49ers to throw the challenge flag; may have a 12-men-in-the-huddle violation on the 49ers just prior to that Davis TD; and flagged Mike Mitchell for a critical personal foul on a bang-bang play early.

Late in the game, head ref Carl Cheffers briefly kept Carolina's comeback hopes alive with an absolutely absurd 15-yard flag on San Francisco's Dan Skuta -- Cheffers said that Skuta hit Newton helmet-to-helmet on a sack attempt, ignoring the fact that Newton spun directly into the tackle.

The league has to be crossing its fingers that an erroneous call does not decide a playoff game. It's looking less and less likely that will be true.

First Down: Steve Smith.

Smith was deemed questionable to play all week as he worked his way back from a knee injury. The veteran receiver seemed no worse for the wear Sunday, especially early. He finished the game with four catches for 74 yards and his team's lone touchdown -- a great one-on-one grab in the end zone off an even better pass from Newton. Only Ted Ginn Jr.'s meaningless 59-yard reception late prevented Smith from leading his team in receiving yards Sunday.

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Fourth Down: The Panthers' red-zone plan.

This game never had the makings of a shootout, so getting points when they were on the table was a must. And the Panthers definitely left a few out there.

Their first trip into the red zone ended when San Francisco bowed up for a goal-line stand, with Brooks stuffing Newton on a 4th-and-1 QB sneak. That misfire was negated somewhat by what happened next: Carolina stopped San Francisco, then Newton hit Smith for a touchdown. The Panthers' second botched red-zone attempt loomed larger. After Newton and then Mike Tolbert were stuffed from the San Francisco 1, the Panthers took a delay-of-game penalty and kicked a field goal.

Rather than lead 14-6, the Panthers' edge was a mere four points. San Francisco then wrestled away the lead before halftime and added to it early in the third quarter.

Not once in six plays inside the San Francisco 5-yard line did Carolina move Newton out of the pocket, nor did it attempt any passes. Head coach Ron Rivera has earned a reputation as a gambler -- "Riverboat Ron" being his nickname -- but the play calling by he and offensive coordinator Mike Shula left something to be desired.

First Down: The NFC West.

The best division in football now has the last two teams standing in the NFC playoffs. Though several other teams painted themselves as contenders -- Carolina, New Orleans, Green Bay, Philadelphia, even Chicago, Detroit and Arizona for a spell -- the general consensus was that the Seahawks and 49ers were on a collision course for this conference's championship.

And here we are: with the two heated rivals set for what might be a battle for the ages next Sunday in Seattle. The 49ers had to claw their way into the playoffs a little harder than did the top-seeded Seahawks. Now that they're here, they look capable of finishing the job they started last season before falling just short against the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

Fourth Down: Divisional-round drama.

The wild-card round was a thrill a minute. This weekend has been a letdown by comparison, with only the Saints-Seahawks game coming down to the final seconds -- and New Orleans needed a touchdown and onside kick recovery to even have a slight prayer in that one.

This game had the potential to be a memorable knock-'em-down affair. Even at the half, with San Francisco clinging to a 13-10 lead, there was the hope that the teams would take it down to the wire. The 49ers pulled away instead -- essentially running out the clock for much of the second half.

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