The San Francisco 49ers have been one of the NFL's biggest surprises this season and will look to keep things going Sunday at home against the Carolina Panthers. One of two undefeated teams left, the 49ers have raced out to a 6-0 start thanks to the league's second-ranked defense and seventh-ranked offense, both sides of the ball not featuring many household names.
One catch though: The Niners have played just one winning team all year, the 4-3 Rams. With the obvious caveat that winning every game will make your opponents' records look worse, their opponents have a combined 11-28 record. They've put up excellent numbers — all year only one game has been within one score — but that could change against a quality opponent
The question then becomes whether or not the Panthers are a quality opponent. Carolina (4-2) is currently just a half-game out of the second wild-card spot despite stumbling out of the gate with two home losses, but it's hard to know what to make of their quarterback situation. There's never been a player in Charlotte quite like Cam Newton, but he wasn't himself when he was playing, and with the way Kyle Allen has performed, the Panthers don't appear to be in any rush to get the former league MVP back out on the field.
The Panthers have had an extra week to prepare during a Week 7 bye, so they should be fresher and well familiar with what San Francisco will try and do on offense and defense. The Niners will have an extra weapon at their disposal, as they traded third- and fourth-round draft picks to the Broncos for wideout Emmanuel Sanders. All this makes for one of the more fascinating games on Sunday's slate.
Carolina at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 27 at 4:05 p.m ET
Spread: San Francisco -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Panthers' defense make a big play?
Carolina's defense has been solid-to-middling as far as yardage (7th in passing, 16th in rushing), but they've truly excelled in the turnover game. With nine picks, they trail only the vaunted Patriots. However, they have yet to score a touchdown on any of those picks, and Ross Cockrell has the longest return at just 37 yards. Given how tough it may be to score against the 49ers defense, a defensive touchdown or even a big turnover would be huge.
Jimmy Garoppolo may make it easy on them, as he has just one more touchdown (7) than interception (6). The soon-to-be-28-year-old has not stretched the field much (219.0 passing ypg), and the Panthers lead the league with 27 sacks, so they could force him into bad decisions. Keep an eye on safety Eric Reid, well known for his protests of police violence and racial inequality, whom the 49ers let go two seasons ago. He told reporters on Wednesday that he would be determined against his former team and "wouldn't forget" how they treated him.
2. Can Kyle Allen keep it going?
Many thought the Panthers' season would be over when Cam Newton revealed a Lisfranc injury after Week 2, but Kyle Allen has been more than capable in his stead. The former No. 1 recruit out of high school has posted an impressive 65.6 percent completion rate in four starts but more importantly, has seven touchdowns to no interceptions. He has fumbled the ball six times, which leads the league despite starting the season as the backup.
Things will get much harder, though, since the 49ers have by far the toughest pass defense Allen has seen all year. His previous four opponents — Cardinals (25th), Texans (29th), Jaguars (17th), Buccaneers (32nd) — are all in the bottom half of the league, while San Francisco paces the league at just 133.5 passing yards per game. Allen has played so well, he's forced the Panthers to consider which quarterback is best for its future, but this will be his first true test.
3. Can anyone stop Christian McCaffrey?
It's not often that a running back enters the conversation for the MVP, but McCaffrey is making about as great of a case as any could with 618 rushing yards (third in NFL) plus a team-leading 35 receptions, good for another 305 yards. McCaffrey is tied with Green Bay's Aaron Jones for the most touchdowns by a skill position player — despite already having his bye — and seems to be more of a reason than Allen why the Panthers have stayed afloat in Newton's absence.
Stopping McCaffrey will be the first, second, and third thing the Niners will have to focus on defensively. They've only allowed one rushing score all season, so something will have to give. Given San Francisco's tough pass defense, expect the Panthers to run the ball more than the 40.8 percent rate that they have all season. Staying on the field for long drives could be the best way to wear out a stingy 49ers defense.
The Panthers have dominated this series for much of this century, taking six of the last seven games with their wins coming by an average of 11.7 points. Carolina may not yet — or ever — be a playoff-caliber team, but their fearsome pass rush off extra rest will present a unique problem, especially with both starting offensive tackles banged up for the 49ers. This one won't be very high scoring, but the team whose defense makes the most big plays will likely come out on top.