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Carolina Panthers vs. San Francisco 49ers Preview and Prediction

Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

The NFC’s hottest two teams go head-to-head when the Carolina Panthers square off with the San Francisco 49ers at 4:05 p.m. ET on FOX. This is a matchup of second-place teams, as the Panthers (5-3) trail the Saints by one game in the NFC South and the 49ers (6-2) are behind the Seahawks by a game and a half in the NFC West.

The Panthers have won four games in a row behind a more efficient Cam Newton and one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses, while the 49ers have rattled off five wins a row by dominating teams on both sides of the ball and thanks to more consistent play from Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco is averaging 34.8 points per game during this streak and has outscored opponents by 22.6 points per contest.

These two teams have played each other 17 times with Carolina leading 10-7 in the series. The Panthers have won the last three meetings, but this will be Newton’s first game against the 49ers and likewise Kaepernick’s first versus Carolina.

3 Things to Watch

Cam vs. CK
When it comes to the evolution of the quarterback position in the NFL, two of the first names that come to mind are Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick, both members of the 2011 draft class. After being the No. 1 overall pick of that draft, Newton has helped usher in the new era of dynamic, athletic, dual-threat signal-callers. The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year his first season, Newton has developed as both a passer and decision maker and has taken his game to a new level this season. Through eight games, Newton is completing a personal-best 64.4 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has been even sharper over his last four outings, posting a completion percentage of 72.3 with seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. While he may not be running as much as he did in his first two seasons, Newton still is making things happen with his legs. He is averaging 4.6 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns, three of those coming in his last four games. Kaepernick went in the second round of the ’11 draft, 35 picks after Newton and had to wait even longer to get on the field. His first significant action didn’t come until midway through last season when he took over for an injured Alex Smith. Once Kaepernick got the job, however, he never looked back, going 5-2 in the regular season, leading the 49ers to the NFC West crown. But where Kaepernick really shined was in the playoffs, starting with a game to remember in the NFC Divisional round against Green Bay. Against the Packers, Kaepernick broke the NFL single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 181. He also threw for 263 yards and had a total of four touchdowns in the win. Even though San Francisco came up short against Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII, the future seemed incredibly bright for the newest dual-threat quarterback to burst onto the scene. This season started great for Kaepernick, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 1 victory over Green Bay, but he has struggled to replicate that sort of statistical success. For the season, Kaepernick is completing just 57.1 percent of his passes (62.4 in 2012) and has accounted for a total of 12 touchdowns (9 pass, 3 rush) with nine turnovers (5 INTs, 4 fumbles). The good news is Kaepernick has played better during the 49ers’ current five-game winning streak. He has nine total touchdowns (6 pass, 3 rush) and just three turnovers (INT, 2 fumbles) in his last five outings. Even though Newton has been more productive and efficient so far this season, Kaepernick is just as capable of breaking out at any point. The bottom line is these two quarterbacks are similar in many ways and it will be interesting to see which one puts together the better performance this afternoon.

Dominating Defenses
San Francisco may have the reputation as being one of the NFL’s nastiest defenses, but Carolina’s unit is putting up better numbers this season. Both are ranked in the top six in the league in yards and points allowed. The Panthers are second in rushing defense (79.1 ypg), while the 49ers are ranked 11th (104.6 ypg). A total of 0.3 yards per game separates the two teams when it comes to passing defense and both are giving up fewer than 18.2 points per game. The Panthers have allowed 20 points or more in a game just twice all season, while the 49ers have surrendered an average of 12.2 points per contest during their five-game winning streak. Both defenses have star power at every level and each is capable of completely taking a game over. If there is any weakness to either defense it’s getting to the quarterback, as neither team ranks near the league leaders in sacks. Both offenses do a solid job of protecting the quarterback, so if one defense is able to pressure the pocket this afternoon it could be a determining factor. Otherwise, if you like defensive football this could be the type of game for you because if both units are at the top of their games, points may be hard to come by at Candlestick Park.

Offensive Supporting Cast
As talented and explosive as Newton and Kaepernick are, they cannot be asked to do it all on offense, especially against two of the top defenses in the NFL. Each quarterback will need their teammates to step up, whether that is in the running game or as a receiver. San Francisco is No. 1 in the league in rushing offense right now at 153 yards per game, while Carolina is eighth (130.1 ypg). Newton and Kaepernick haven’t been as busy running the ball as they were last year, which means more carries for the backs. DeAngelo Williams is the Panthers’ leading rusher with 519 yards, but he gets plenty of support from Mike Tolbert, who is tied for the team lead with four rushing touchdowns, and Jonathan Stewart, who made his season debut last week after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. For the 49ers, Frank Gore continues to get the job done, as he’s seventh in the league in rushing (618 yards) and has scored seven times on the ground. Neither offense has been prolific in the passing game with Carolina at 202.6 yards per game and San Francisco last in the NFL at 189.9. That doesn’t mean either offense doesn’t have any playmakers, however, as wide receivers Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen serve as Newton’s top targets. Kaepernick has leaned heavily on wideout Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis this season, as the two have combined for more than half (67) of the 49ers’ receptions (114), more than two thirds of the yards (1,069 of 1,587) and all nine touchdown catches. A big reason for this has been the absence of Michael Crabtree, the team’s top pass-catcher last season, who tore his Achilles in late March. Crabtree could be back in a few weeks, but the offense is expected to have veteran Mario Manningham in the starting lineup this afternoon. Manningham tore his ACL late last season and while he’s not as talented, explosive or productive as Crabtree, his return should help boost a passing attack that needs more reliable options. Whether it’s a Panther or a 49er, someone other than the quarterback will need to step up and make a big play, pick up a key first down or provide some sort of meaningful contribution to help put their team in position to win. Because in a game like this with seemingly evenly matched teams and strong defenses, one key play or drive could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Carolina Key Player: Steve Smith, WR
The veteran Smith has been the Panthers’ top wide receiver for more than a decade. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and total touchdowns, and quarterback Cam Newton has relied on him heavily since coming into the NFL in 2011. Smith also is 34 years old and playing in his 13th season, and his numbers have been down across the board thus far. He is leading the team in catches with 36, but he has just 387 yards receiving and three touchdowns. His season-high for catches in a game is six (Week 1) and his best yardage total has been only 69 (Week 7). These are the not the numbers of a No. 1 wide receiver, especially not the caliber of Smith. Newton has been on fire recently, completing better than 72 percent of his passes and he has done most of this without Smith’s assistance. This needs to change if the Panthers want to beat the defending NFC champions on their home turf and in the process send a message to the rest of the NFL that they are a team to be feared. After all, Smith’s penchant for trash talk is well known. Instead of just talking a big game, it’s time for him to follow through with one on the field too.

San Francisco Key Player: Aldon Smith, LB
The 49ers have arguably the top linebacking corps in the NFL. Led by Patrick Willis, the group also features fellow All-Pros NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Smith. A pass-rushing specialist, Smith amassed 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons, the most of any player in NFL history. He leads the team in that category again this season with 4.5 and he has done so in just three games. Smith has been out of action since Week 3 so he could seek treatment for his substance-abuse issues. He was suspended by the team during this time, and while he still may have to deal with the NFL in regards to additional punishment stemming from his various legal matters, Smith was re-activated from the non-football illness list on Tuesday and is expected to be on the field this afternoon. While the priority is on Smith getting his life in order and staying clean and sober, his return should energize a defense that has struggled to pressure the quarterback consistently. As well as the defense has played during this five-game winning streak, allowing just 12.2 points per game, the unit has a total of five sacks in the past four contests. Remember, Smith has 4.5 by himself in three games this season and racked up 5.5 in a single contest last season against Chicago. Who knows how much better this defense can get now that it has its sack-master back?

Final Analysis

Cam Newton has his Panthers above .500 for the first time in his career, but he’s not doing it alone. Carolina’s defense is third in the NFL in yards allowed and second in points, and quickly establishing its own reputation.

San Francisco has won five games in a row in dominating fashion and has done this without a huge contribution from Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers are coming off of a bye and are getting some major reinforcements with several players returning, most notably All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith.

To me, this is a game of similar, evenly matched teams that are where they are thanks in large part to their defenses. Newton has never been more efficient running the offense, and his numbers show this. I also truly believe that Carolina is a legitimate playoff contender in the NFC. However, San Francisco is red hot right now and that’s without Kaepernick being at his best. The 49ers are more seasoned and battle tested than the Panthers and I think that will be the difference in what I expect to be a back-and-forth, physical, grind-it-out type of game.

In the end, Kaepernick flashes some of his 2012 postseason form on a key scoring drive in the fourth quarter and the 49ers get significant contributions from the cavalry, namely Smith. Newton holds his own and the Panthers show they are a worthy potential challenger to the 49ers’ throne, but the defending NFC champs make it six victories in a row by taking care of business at home.

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San Francisco 23, Carolina 20