Two teams with a combined one win between them face off Sunday in a cross-country battle that won’t determine much besides high draft-pick order for 2011.
This game barely missed being the battle of the winless — San Francisco also started the season 0–5 but beat Oakland, 17–9, last Sunday behind two second-half touchdown passes from quarterback Alex Smith. That guaranteed Smith his job for at least another week and took a bit of heat off embattled 49ers coach Mike Singletary.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have their own quarterback and coach issues. Head coach John Fox is in the last year of his contract, and it would be a stunner if he were retained.
The Panthers on Sunday will make their second switch at quarterback this season. They began with Matt Moore, who lost the first two games. Then they went to rookie Jimmy Clausen, who lost the next three. Now they’re back to Moore again. Moore, at least, has a stronger arm than Clausen and does his best to keep plays alive longer. And Moore may have at least one advantage — wide receiver Steve Smith, the Panthers’ only viable deep threat, is trying to return this week from a high ankle sprain.
The game will also feature a couple of the NFL’s best young linebackers — the 49ers’ Patrick Willis and Carolina’s Jon Beason.
Keys for the Panthers
• Get a big game from a rookie wideout. Carolina has tried to shoehorn David Gettis and then Brandon LaFell into the lineup all season, but neither of the rookie wideouts has done much yet. If Smith comes back for this game, as expected, one of the rookies should benefit from single coverage and must come up with a few big plays.
• Get a defensive or special teams score. The Panthers are so offensively challenged — they average an NFL-low 10.4 points per game — that their best offense may be their quite respectable defense and special teams. One of those units probably needs to come up with some sort of cheap touchdown for Carolina to win.
Keys for the 49ers
• Establish Frank Gore and get an early lead. Gore — a huge threat as both a running back and receiver — needs to pop the Panthers early. Carolina’s defense has a tendency of starting slowly; Chicago’s Matt Forté had two touchdowns in the first quarter of Carolina’s last game. If the Panthers fall 10 or more points behind, their passing attack is so bad that they have no real shot to come back. Gore had 149 yards rushing against Oakland last week.
• Make the Panthers’ passing game beat you. The game plan for stopping Carolina’s offense this season has been relatively simple: Put eight men in the box to slow down the run and dare the quarterback to beat you. If the 49ers can get Moore in 3rd-and-long situations, interceptions will likely follow. Carolina is dead last in the league in passing offense.
The game starts at 10 a.m. Pacific for the 49ers, which has always been a difficult time for San Francisco to play when traveling east. Nevertheless, the 49ers — who will travel to London for an Oct. 31 game against Denver following this contest — have more weapons than this depleted Carolina squad. Even though the Panthers are coming off a bye, they won’t have enough to win this game. Niners 17–13.