NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers

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Cam Newton makes his playoff debut at home against the defending NFC champions

NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers

The San Francisco 49ers take their road show to Charlotte where they will face the Carolina Panthers in this afternoon’s NFC Divisional Playoff game at 1:05 p.m. ET on FOX. The 49ers (13-4) won their Wild Card matchup with the Packers last week and look to extend their seven-game winning streak with their fourth straight victory away from home.  The Panthers (12-4) are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 after winning the NFC South. Ron Rivera’s team is 7-1 at Bank of America Stadium this season and also beat San Francisco on the road in Week 10.

Jim Harbaugh’s squad is looking to duplicate the success it had in Green Bay last week, as Colin Kaepernick tormented the Packers for a third time in a little more than a year. Kaepernick is now 3-1 in the playoffs in his young career, while his counterpart, Cam Newton is playing in his first postseason game. Kaepernick is hoping to lead his team to a third straight NFC Championship Game, while Newton would like to lead his team one step closer to the Super Bowl with a second win against the 49ers this season.

3 Things to Watch

Another Defensive Struggle?
Round 1 back in Week 10 was won by Carolina. The Panthers beat the 49ers 10-9 in Candlestick Park in a game that was dominated by defense. Carolina entered this game on a four-game winning streak and stayed hot, holding San Francisco to just three Phil Dawson field goals, all of them coming in the first half. The Panthers managed just two scoring drives of their own, but DeAngelo Williams’ 27-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes left in the second quarter accounted for the only trip to the end zone. Graham Gano kicked a 53-yard field goal with 10 minutes left in the game, which ended up being the deciding score. Neither offense was that effective, but Carolina did outgain the home team 250-151 as Colin Kaepernick finished 11-of-22 passing for just 91 yards and an interception. He also was sacked six times. Cam Newton didn’t fare much better (16-of-32, 169 yds., INT), but the Panthers made the most out of Williams’ TD run, the longest play from scrimmage in the game, and bottled up the 49ers’ offense just enough to secure the huge road win. Carolina kept things rolling after this game, winning six of their last seven to overtake New Orleans for the NFC South division title. San Francisco lost its next game, in New Orleans, but hasn’t lost since, ratting off six straight victories to close out the regular season and then taking down Green Bay, 23-20, in last week’s Wild Card game. As far as the encore goes, the defenses are pretty much intact with one large exception. All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith saw limited snaps in the first game, which was his first action after he missed five games to deal with some personal issues. He has slowly worked his way back into the rotation and has 3.5 sacks in his last four games, including 1.5 in the Wild Card win over the Packers. Both defenses feature plenty of Pro Bowlers and finished among the top seven units in the four major categories (total, scoring, rushing, passing) in the regular season. Don’t be surprised to see another low-scoring affair this afternoon.

QB Playoff Experience
Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, has 48 games worth of experience under his belt, all of them starts. Colin Kaepernick, taken 35 picks later, has played in 35 career games, 26 of those starts. The difference, however, lies in the postseason. Kaepernick is 3-1 in the playoffs, with his only loss coming in Super Bowl XLVII last season, while Newton is making his postseason debut. Kaepernick has been productive in the playoffs, throwing for 1,025 yards and rushing for another 362 in those four games. He has accounted for eight total touchdowns (five pass, three rush) and just three interceptions. He’s been especially effective as a rusher, averaging 11.3 yards per carry and gashing Green Bay last season for a quarterback-record 181 on the ground. Kaepernick has been up and down for most of this season, and his first game against Carolina was one of the worst performances in his young career. He was just 11-of-22 passing against the Panthers in the Week 10 loss, tossing an interception, getting sacked six times and rushing for only 16 yards. Kaepernick knows he needs to play better, especially on the road, against this defense, but at least he has previous postseason experience and success to lean on. The same cannot be said for Newton, however, who needed three seasons to lead his team to the playoffs and will be under the microscope every snap against San Francisco. Even though Newton won the first matchup against Kaepernick and the 49ers, he didn’t exactly play lights out. He completed just half of his passes (16 of 32) for 169 yards and an interception, along with just 15 yards rushing on eight carries. The Panthers are coming off of a long layoff while the 49ers beat Green Bay at frigid Lambeau Field last week. Newton also may not have his full arsenal of weapons (see below), while Kaepernick’s corps is finally healthy and clicking at just the right time. The defenses are the focus of this game, and deservedly so, but someone is going to have make some plays on offense at some point. That’s where the quarterbacks come in. Will Kaepernick continue his postseason success or will Newton rise to the occasion in his first playoff game? Don’t forget, Kaepernick was in this exact position last season. Things worked out pretty well for him, right?

Progress in the Passing Game?
The first time these two teams played, Carolina and San Francisco combined for a 50 percent completion rate (27 of 54), 260 yards passing and two interceptions. Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick were sacked a total of nine times and also were held to a combined 31 yards rushing (on 12 carries). So what will be different this time around? For one, Steve Smith, the leading receiver in the first game (6 rec., 63 yds.), is dealing with a knee injury. He has been limited in practice and hasn’t been too optimistic about the condition of his knee. There’s little reason to expect Smith to miss this game, but it is pretty apparent he will not be close to 100 percent. Even though Smith’s numbers have been down, he remains Newton’s top target. A limited Smith will put even more pressure on fellow wideout Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen, to name a few, to produce in the passing game. That’s a tall order against the seventh-ranked passing defense (221.0 ypg) in the regular season. Meanwhile, the 49ers figure to be at full strength in their passing game, something they weren’t in the first meeting. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree didn’t play and tight end Vernon Davis sustained a concussion in the Week 10 home loss, which limited Kaepernick’s options even more. Since his Week 13 return from a torn Achilles, Crabtree has caught 27 passes for 409 yards and a touchdown. This includes the 125 yards he had on eight catches in the Wild Card win in Green Bay. Not surprisingly, Kaepernick’s passing numbers have improved since Crabtree’s return. The quarterback is averaging 231.2 yards through the air over the last six games, compared to 185.2 in his first 11. Crabtree’s presence only makes Davis and fellow wideout Anquan Boldin that much tougher to cover, which is something the Panthers’ sixth-ranked passing defense (214.3 ypg) will try and solve once again. For both offenses, it looks like their passing attacks may function differently this time around. Which team benefits the most from these changes remains to be seen.

San Francisco Key Player: Anquan Boldin, WR
Michael Crabtree is back and making an impact for the 49ers in the passing game. Vernon Davis posted a career-high 13 touchdowns and has been highly productive in the playoffs. However, the workhorse of this aerial attack is Boldin. The 11-year veteran is equally capable of making the tough catch across the middle or in tight coverage, as he is breaking off a long play. Of his 85 catches in the regular season, 62 of them resulted in a first down and he’s averaging nearly 14 yards per reception. He had 22 grabs for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the Baltimore’s Super Bowl run last season, including 10 for 104 against the 49ers in the big game. Boldin had just five catches for 23 yards in the first meeting with Carolina and only six for 38 in last week’s Wild Card win. If anything, he should find more space to operate in with the Carolina defense having to worry about Crabtree in addition to Davis, and I have little doubt Boldin has another big playoff performance in him.

Carolina Key Player: Cam Newton, QB
It may seem rather simplistic, but if the Panthers are going to win this afternoon they need their quarterback to make plays. Carolina’s defense is certainly capable of beating the 49ers, but someone will need to put some points on the board. This is Newton’s first playoff game, but franchise quarterbacks don’t get the benefit of the doubt in these cases very often. Even when their top wide receiver (Steve Smith) will be at less than 100 percent on the field. Newton has risen to the occasion more than once this season, but the slate has been wiped clean and all that matters now is what he does this afternoon. Every starting quarterback playing this weekend has at least one playoff win to his credit. Will Newton join the club?

Final Analysis

Carolina already has beaten San Francisco once this season, on the road no less, but this is the Panthers’ first playoff game since 2008. The 49ers are the defending NFC champions, have won seven games in a row and already have a road victory (Green Bay) this postseason. Cam Newton is making his playoff debut, while Colin Kaepernick already has three postseason wins on his resume.

Carolina is the division champion and the No. 2 seed, but this is Ron Rivera’s first rodeo as a head coach in the postseason while Jim Harbaugh has gone three-for-three in his San Francisco tenure. The 49ers not only have a clear edge when it comes to experience on this stage, they should be at near full strength on both offense and defense. The Panthers’ passing game could feature its top receiver at less than 100 percent health.

Carolina’s defense will do its part to keep this a close game, but I just think San Francisco has too much experience, depth and momentum for the Panthers to overcome. Harbaugh and company keep things rolling with their eighth straight victory, earning their third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game and keeping their goal of a return to the Super Bowl very much alive.

San Francisco 20, Carolina 17

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