The Sunday matinee in week 2 of the NFL playoffs offers up a matchup between a pair of 12-win teams that were separated by a single point two months ago, except this time, Carolina will be the home team. Let’s take a closer look at the Panthers and 49ers.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
San Francisco continued its dominance over Green Bay last week by braving temperatures that were well below freezing and coming away with a three-point win on a last second field goal. Meanwhile, the Panthers overcame a 1-3 start to the season by winning 11 of their final 12 games and coming out on top in the NFC South to earn a first round bye.
SAN FRANCISCO OFFENSE VS. CAROLINA DEFENSE
Carolina held the 49ers in check back in week 10, limiting San Francisco to just three field goals and 151 total yards. Colin Kaepernick threw for just 91 yards and was sacked six times against a ferocious Carolina pass rush. However, the San Francisco offense is in much better shape now than it was back then, as Michael Crabtree has returned and combined with Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis to give the 49eres a formidable receiving trio. More importantly, Kaepernick looks more like the player he was in the postseason last year after overcoming his mid-season slump that included the week 10 game against the Panthers. Carolina has a stout rush defense that should be able to keep Frank Gore in check, just as they did in week 10, but Kaepernick is more dangerous throwing the ball than he was earlier in the season, and as the Packers re-learned last week, Kaepernick can do a lot of damage when he gets out of the pocket, which is something Carolina has to watch out for. The Panthers have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, as defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson have combined for 26 sacks this season, but while they’d like to sack Kaepernick, just keeping him contained in the pocket may be a better strategy. If Carolina can force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm, they should feel good about their talented secondary being able to keep the 49ers out of the end zone.
CAROLINA OFFENSE VS. SAN FRANCISCO DEFENSE
Much like San Francisco, Carolina’s offense is more effective at running the ball than throwing it, although much like San Francisco, the Panthers will face a tough defense this week that is capable of containing that rushing attack. In the first matchup between these two teams, the Panthers managed just 250 yards of offense and struggled to move the ball for large stretches of the game. However, as was the case in so many of Carolina’s wins in the second half of the season, Cam Newton came through in the clutch and led the Panthers on a 4th quarter scoring drive to give them the lead late in the game. This is the biggest concern for the San Francisco defense, as Newton has shown this season that he’s fine with not taking risks and living to see the next play, especially since he knows he has a defense that will keep him in the game, and then when the game is on the line he can take chances and make spectacular throws that lead to the game-winning score. The 49ers can’t get over confident if they shut down Newton and the Carolina offense early in the game; they need to stay focused and find a way to shut him down for four quarters, which is something most teams have struggled to do this season.
These two teams are mirror images of one another; they both have tough defenses that can dominate a game, and they both have athletic quarterbacks that have shown the ability to make big plays with the game on the line. This game is also likely to be a mirror image of the game between these two teams during the regular season, with dominating defenses performances that leads to more field goals than touchdowns. In the end, the 49ers have more playoff experience and are a team that isn’t afraid to play on the road, and that ends up being the difference with the game on the line: San Francisco 19, Carolina 14.