Cam Newton, Panthers almost elite

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of a divisional playoff NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

CHARLOTTE - End zone imitation is the sincerest form of football flattery.

Colin Kaepernick gave the San Francisco 49ers breathing room with a 4-yard touchdown run Sunday and celebrated Cam Newton-style, pretending to reveal a Superman outfit.

"That's not the first, nor will it be the last time somebody does that," Newton said after the Carolina Panthers' 23-10 NFL divisional playoff loss at Bank of America Stadium.

The Panthers and their quarterback had more to worry about than Kaepernick's antics on the way to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle.

Careless penalties. Emotional mistakes. Red zone breakdowns.

"Not seizing the moment," Newton summarized.

But blowing a home-field chance to advance is a precious problem considering where this team was in mid-September. The Panthers this season showed they are almost right there with the NFC elite Seahawks and 49ers, and similarly built around a rugged defense and dual-threat quarterback.

The differences?

Postseason experience, and a little help.

Kaepernick got wide receiver Anquan Boldin from the Ravens last offseason. Boldin caught eight passes for 136 yards Sunday.

"It was a terrible end to a good season," Newton said.

Remember, the Panthers started 0-2.

'We got booed'

Going into a Sept. 22 home game against the winless New York Giants, head coach Ron Rivera's job reportedly was on the line.

Newton wasn't popular, either. Criticized by teammate Steve Smith (and others) for sulking during the 2012 season, Newton the week of the Giants game was roasted on a Charlotte radio show hosted by former Panthers guard Frank Garcia.

"He's a phony," Garcia said of the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. "They (teammates) have no confidence in him. . They don't trust him."

The Panthers won 12 of their next 14 games - including a 10-9 win in San Francisco on Nov. 10 - to finish 12-4.

"We kept fighting," Newton said. "We didn't believe what everyone said about us. . At a point in time, (Rivera) got booed. We know that. As a team we got booed as well. But we're not going to hold that against whoever booed us, because we know this is a league that's built on performance."

Newton still wears a towel on his head on the sidelines and when he takes the field as a team captain for the pre-game coin toss.

But, for the most part, the face of the franchise has played consistently well for three seasons. Aside from making a few smarter throws and smiling a little more, the main difference isn't demeanor.

It's defense.

The Panthers were second in the NFL in points allowed this season, up from 18th in 2012 and 27th in 2011, Newton's first year out of Auburn. Now they a unit with Pro Bowl-bound stars Luke Kuechly and Greg Hardy that allows "Riverboat Ron" Rivera to take chances on offense.

Kaepernick's 'shout out'

It almost worked again Sunday when Newton begged Rivera to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1 on the first play of the second quarter. The 49ers stuffed the Newton dive attempt, but Carolina forced a punt and with good field position, Newton immediately cashed in with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Smith.

But while Newton threw 13 interceptions during the regular season, he threw two Sunday.

It was Kaepernick's fifth playoff start, Newton's first.

Kaepernick had Boldin on his side, along with Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.

"It makes me very comfortable," Kaepernick said of his various weapons. "It opens the offense up. It spreads the defense and they can't key on any one player."

Which makes it easier to run for touchdowns, and celebrate like Cam Newton.

"Just a little shout out," Kaepernick said.


"I think you know the answer."

That's right, the quarterback whose team is almost good enough for the NFC Championship Game.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff