CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera typically doesn't play games with the media. He shoots straight from the hip and tells it like it is.
But I have to wonder if there was a little playoff gamesmanship going on when he said the Panthers caught San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the right moment during the regular season.
"We were fortunate," Rivera said on Monday of Carolina's 10-9 victory at San Francisco on Nov. 10. "We were able to do some things and make it tough on him. I don't expect that this time. All you have to do is watch him down the stretch. We caught them at the right time, and it turned out to our benefit."
Asked what he meant by "the right time," Rivera said: "When we beat them, he didn't play well. That's basically it. I don't expect that again. I expect the young man to come out and play well."
When the Panthers went to San Francisco, the 49ers were on a five-game winning streak in which the offense was averaging 34.8 points a game and Kaepernick had an average passer rating of 101.7.
They are averaging 26 points during their current seven-game winning streak, and Kaepernick's passer rating is even slightly better (102.6) than it was during the five-game streak.
The last time these teams met, the 49ers were at home after a two-game road trip. The Panthers were playing on the road for the fourth time in six games.
The 49ers were hot -- hotter than the Panthers, who had won four straight.
So that was a good time to catch them? I'm not buying it. Rivera made the comment for the same reason he said the pressure was on San Francisco because oddsmakers and national media were making the 49ers the favorites.
He was doing his part to create that us-against-the-rest-of-the-NFL attitude, the we-don't-get-respect mentality that the Panthers (12-4) have used so well this season.
The Panthers didn't beat the 49ers because they caught them at a good time. They won because they were hungry and disciplined and simply better that day.
They didn't just luck into sacking Kaepernick six times and holding him to 91 yards passing. They've been pressuring the quarterback all season. Ask New Orleans' Drew Brees, who was sacked six times three weeks ago to give Carolina a chance to win the NFC South.
Ask Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who was sacked nine times a week later as the Panthers earned the first-round bye that has them well-rested and healthy.
The Panthers led the league with 60 sacks, which is 20 more than the league average, and 22 more than the 49ers had during the regular season. They are good at pressuring the quarterback, a big reason they are in this position.
I've heard it argued that having wide receiver Michael Crabtree -- who did not play this season until Dec. 1, as he healed from a torn Achilles -- will be the difference this time. No doubt, Crabtree is a difference-maker. He had a huge game (eight catches, 125 yards) in Sunday's 23-20 wild-card victory over Green Bay.
But did anybody mention that Green Bay's pass defense was ranked 24th in the league, that the Packers ranked 25th overall on defense?
Carolina ranks sixth in pass defense -- tied for fourth with 20 interceptions -- and second overall?
It seems any time an offense faces the Panthers' defense is a bad time. Take away a 31-13 loss at New Orleans -- Carolina's only loss in its past 12 games -- and the defense is giving up 13.8 points during that stretch.
Much of it has to do with attitude. They play almost every snap as if they have something to prove.
Maybe that was Rivera's message, to put them in a something-to-prove mentality. I'm not buying the notion that the Panthers simply caught the 49ers at the right time.
The gamesmanship has begun.