The Carolina Panthers weren't a total dud in their first playoff appearance since 2008. Their defense sufficiently contained Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers for the most part. But stalled drives killed them. Carolina burned over 17 minutes of game time on two offensive drives, coming away with just three points.
The first drive occurred in the second quarter, with the Panthers holding a 7-6 lead. Cam Newton left the pocket for a few gains, but the biggest play was a 35-yard pass to Greg Olsen. Eventually, the Panthers were at San Francisco's one-yard line on third and goal. Mike Tolbert's sneak lost a yard, and the Graham Gano kicked a field goal for a 10-6 lead.
Now, Riverboat Ron Rivera's decision to take the sure three points on fourth down was the right call, but the offense's inability to convert with two chances on the one-yard line was troubling. And that wasn't even the first struggle from this situation of the game. On an earlier drive, the Panthers were at the one-yard line and chose to run a Mike Tolbert dive on third down and a Cam Newton sneak on fourth down. They failed and turned the ball over, though the defense bailed them out with a quick three-and-out. But there was no variety. The Panthers didn't try any play-fakes or outside runs, instead going up the middle and hoping they'd break through. Riverboat Ron didn't try to catch the defense off guard. The Panthers burned 8:59 for three points.
The second brutal drive was less successful, beginning near the middle of the third quarter with Carolina down 20-10. The offense ate up yardage with a handful of short passes and again, some runs for Newton. The Panthers found themselves in borderline field goal range with a first down at the 49ers' 29-yard line. After an incomplete pass, Newton was sacked twice in a row, both times in the shotgun formation. On fourth and 26, far out of any range to try a field goal for a one-possession game, Carolina was forced to punt after wasting 8:20.
Long, grinding, clock-killing drives are great at keeping the ball out of the opponent's hands, but they need to end with points in order to be truly effective. Riverboat Ron made the correct fourth-down decisions, but the preceding plays were predictable. The Panthers ran out of time, but that was their own doing.