By Gabe Schapiro
One down, three to go. After last weeks win over the Green Packers, the San Francisco 49ers advanced to the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. This Sunday they travel to Carolina, where they will be taking on the Panthers. The second seeded Panthers won the NFC South title with a 12-4 record. They had a first round bye.
Carolina started the season 1-3, before going on a tear and finishing the year on a 11-1 run. They are led by quarterback Cam Newton, who is one of the most athletic QB’s in the league. He struggled at times, but overall the third year rising star had his best season yet. However, he doesn’t have great weapons at his disposal. His favorite targets are tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the team in receiving and touchdown catches, and wideouts Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell. None of the group are real game breakers. As a whole they scored the 18th most points per game in the regular season. They lean significantly on their running game, which ranked 11th. They finished an abysmal 29th in passing yards per game.
The reason the Panthers are still a team to fear, is because of their stout defense. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is the captain of the unit, and is seemingly in on every play. Defensive end Greg Hardy is a great pass rusher, and finished with 15 sacks this season. They allowed the second fewest points in the league.
This matchup isn’t quite a unstoppable force hitting an unmovable object, but it’s close. The 49ers feature the third best rushing attack in the NFL, and they’ll need some solid production against the Carolina, which counter with the leagues second best run defense.
These two foes faced off in Week 10 at Candlestick Park, and the Panthers came away with a hard fought 10-9 victory. In the contest the 49ers failed to reach the endzone, but thanks to three field goals held a lead for much of the game. A late field goal by Carolina sealed the comeback win.
As the saying goes, it’s tough to beat the same team twice in one season. However, the 49ers are fresh off of accomplishing just that last week. This weekend the conditions will be nicer, but the opponent is tougher. Colin Kaepernick will need to be a game manager. He needs to limit his mistakes and grab the few opportunities he’ll get. Michael Crabtree appears to be getting better every week, which is a great sign. Frank Gore wasn’t busy, but did well when given the carries in their previous matchup. He rushed for 82 yards on 16 carries, good for 5.1 yards per carry.
Expect another hard-nosed, low scoring affair. It’s certainly a winnable game, but it could come down to which side blinks first.