davis TD2

Jim Harbaugh almost beat the ball to Vernon Davis. Almost

I’m sure there’s an awful sports cliche here somewhere, but too often in football the last yard of the, say, 80 or so required to push down the length of the field is the hardest. Wait, that was the awful cliche. Dammit.

Gaining that short yardage seems so meager in numeric form (“third and ONE…ONE”), and it’s┬áthe sort of hero moment Hollywood has orgasmed about and fed to us in football movies since the inception of pictures. Just ask Tony D’Amato, and he’ll say something long winded about inches while telling you how much he’s destroyed his life through cocaine and hookers…

“Life’s this game of inches, and so is football. Because in either game, the margin for error is so small”

As a writer, I try to avoid cliches about as much as I avoid orange juice with pulp in it (both induce a gag reflex). But there are times when they need to be embraced, because they’ve become so firmly embedded in the sports vernacular for a simple reason: they’re true.

Or at least this one is. The margin for error is small, and today for the Carolina Panthers in their 23-10 divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers, it was microscopically small.

In what was largely the expected defensive snot rocker and especially so at the time, the Panthers drove down the field 66 yards to San Francisco’s three yard-line late in the first quarter, and much of that distance was covered by Cam Newton’s 28-yard pass to Steve Smith. It was second and goal then, giving an offense with Newton and Mike Tolbert — two fine goal-line running backs — to get the small required distance. Newton gained two of those yards, and then Tolbert was stuffed for a no-gain.

Ron Rivera then jumped on his riverboat, and went for it on fourth down. The call was the right one and an easy one, because even if they were stuffed again, Colin Kaepernick then had to drive down the field at least 70 yards for points of any kind.

But the play call was severely lacking. A quarterback sneak from a long yard with Navorro Bowman, Patrick Willis et al crowding the line isn’t ideal when Newton has no room to get any sort of push. No gain, drive over.

That failure was seemingly redeemed quickly after Ted Ginn returned a punt to the 49er’s 31 yard-line, and Newton then hit Smith for a deep touchdown on a perfectly thrown ball to the back of the end zone. But a series later, the Panthers were at the goal-line again after a 79-yard drive. The result? A Newton sack, another Tolbert stuffing, and then a field goal. Oh, and this little slice of awesome

The Panthers had seven offensive snaps in goal-to-go situations, and four of them were from the 49ers’ one-yard line. Yet directly from those plays which required gains of almost nothing for touchdowns, they came away with three points. That’s all they had after two drives which used a combined 12:47 of game clock, and covered 144 yards.

That’s it. Meanwhile, the 49ers had two of their own goal-to-go situations, and two snaps from inside Carolina’s two yard-line. They ended in 14 points.

An unraveling began there, and continued when the Panthers didn’t score in the second half, after a first half when Kaepernick had accumulated 121 passing yards, already surpassing his 91-yard career low during the last meeting between these two teams (he finished with 196). He wasn’t alone in entirely forgetting about that brutish 10-9 loss, as Anquan Boldin finished with 136 receiving yards, which is 113 yards more than his Week 10 total.

Boldin and Frank Gore delivered the daggers with a 45-yard catch and a 39-yard run. The Panthers’ longest play allowed in Week 10? That went for 14 yards. Say, Jim Harbaugh, doesn’t that just make you want to frolic forever?

GIF: Jim Harbaugh spins me right round baby right round like ... on Twitpic

You can call Harbaugh many good things (motivator, leader, and a quality teacher) and many more awful things (complete jerk, over-expressive whack job, Judge Judy sympathiser). But now there’s no doubting his ability as an NFL head coach, his mentorship of a young arm, and underneath him Greg Roman’s insight to craft the ideal offense around a uniquely skilled quarterback.

Before Harbaugh came aboard in 2011, the 49ers had gone eight years without a season over .500. Now they’ve lost only 11 regular-season games since his arrival, while advancing to the NFC title game in three straight seasons.

Even better, the 49ers are one win away from their second straight Super Bowl appearance. Too bad that journey has to go through Seattle, a doomed and dark place where the combined score in Kaepernick’s two northwest starts is pretty gruesome: 71-16.