For the San Francisco 49ers offensive line, this one was sort of for the ladies in their lives.
Left tackle Joe Staley, the guy who held Greg Hardy sack-less Sunday, was a hermit all last week. Absorbed with cataloging every move The Kraken had, he was even more fixated on football than usual this time of year.
“I studied every single game he played this season, every single pass rush he had, to figure out what kind of counter-moves he had,” Staley said. “It wasn’t like I pitched a shutout – he got around me and got some hits on our quarterback. But overall I felt like we did a good job on him.”
Staley credited his coaches for a streamlined game plan based mostly on quick passing routes. After having six in the teams’ earlier matchup, the Panthers got a single sack in their 23-10 playoff loss at Bank of America Stadium, and that was by linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Hardy had eight sacks in the Panthers’ previous three games. But he was virtually invisible Sunday and then unavailable for comment following the game.
“I wanted to get my hands on him quick to see how he would counter because I felt like I had a bead on him,” said Staley, who also didn’t give up a sack in the 49ers’ 10-9 regular-season loss to the Panthers. “There were a couple of times he tricked me, but this was about coming with a game plan.”
And about being studious in a way that gets a veteran team to its third NFC Championship Game in as many seasons. The 49ers, and not the Panthers, advance to a showdown with the Seahawks in Seattle.
“All five linemen and our backups – we eat, sleep, live, breath football,” Staley said. “We spend every single minute of every single day awake studying football. Whether it be our plays or studying our opponents, this is what we do.
“Our wives and girlfriends take a great sacrifice during the season because they don’t get a lot of attention from us. That’s just the way football is. It’s what we signed up for.”
This became their reward: Two months removed from generating just nine points at home, the 49ers outscored the Panthers in Charlotte 10-0 in the second half.
The line gave quarterback Colin Kaepernick time to find wide receiver Anquan Boldin eight times for 136 yards. And once this game became about time management, running back Frank Gore sprung free for a 39-yard run early in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal, the final score of the game.
In the previous matchup with the Panthers, the 49ers were held to 151 total yards. Kaepernick was was an infrequent, ineffectual runner, gaining 16 yards on the ground.
All the 49ers heard about it, but none more than the offensive line.
“That game we weren’t ready for it,” guard Alex Boone said of the Panthers’ pass rush. “We were kind of sick of hearing about it.”
So they studied up, tightened up and hemmed up the Panthers’ pass-rush.
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell