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(3) San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at #2 Carolina Panthers (12-4) Sunday, 1:05 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium
As if more raw emotion was needed in a rematch of perhaps the league’s hardest-hitting game of the season, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is hinting his Niners have a score to settle when they face the ravenous Panthers in NFC Division Playoffs on Sunday.
“We owe them,” Kaepernick told ESPN after his Niners valiantly survived the elements to knock off rival Green Bay 23-20 during wild card week.
If Kaepernick’s words sound a bit more personal than even usual, it’s with good reason. The Panthers sacked the second-year quarterback six times during their 10-9 Week 10 win and limited him to just 91 yards passing, adding an interception for good measure.
But the difference between that 49ers team and the one that will take the field against Carolina are as different as the conditions the Niners will be playing in on Sunday compared to what they endured in Green Bay.
Michael Crabtree is back and Vernon Davis is finally healthy, giving the Niners’ passing attack a dimension it hasn’t had all season long. Against the Packers, Crabtree caught eight passes, good for 125 yards and an endorsement from Coach Jim Harbaugh as the “greatest catcher” of all time. Davis, meanwhile, snared the touchdown grab that gave Niners a 20-17 fourth quarter lead.
Cam Newton and his Panthers had a Week 1 bye, but you can bet they were hardly idle. Undoubtedly Newton (3,379 passing yards, 24 touchdowns), DeAngelo Williams (843 rush yards, 3 TDs) , Greg Olsen (73 receptions, six TDs), and Steve Smith (64 receptions, four TDs), all spent time fine-tuning an offense that averaged 26 points a game during a mid-season eight game win streak.
QUARTERBACK SUPREME – Newton vs. Kaepernick matchup allows the league to milk the drama and reap the benefits of seeing perhaps its best two young quarterbacks go head to head for all the marbles. And each enters the fray on top of his game.
His Carolina struggles behind him, over the course of the Niners’ playoff-clinching, six game regular season ending winning streak, Kaepernick averaged 232 yards passing and two touchdowns. He followed that up by netting more than 300 all-purpose yards and a touchdown passing score against the Packers.
Newton has been almost just as dominant, topping 200 yards through the air in eight of the Panthers last 13 games, 11of them wins. The former Heisman Trophy winner has also ran for 585 yards and a team-high six scores this season.
WHICH DEFENSE RULES? – Both teams statistically rank among league’s top five defenses in yards allowed and points allowed. And the numbers aren’t lying. Yet, each unit is as different as they have been dominant. The Panthers rely on a lethal pass rush led by ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson (combined 26 sacks), while the Niners are led by the versatile linebacking corps of Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis. Over their eight-game winning streak, Carolina allowed an average of just 12 points, while San Francisco has surrendered an average of just 16 over their last seven victories, including the playoffs.
FRANK GORE’s EXPERIENCE Vs. PANTHERS EXUBERANCE: For all the Panthers’ dominance the playoffs are a different terrain for them, perhaps rendering them somewhat vulnerable to an old, crafty vet the likes of Gore, who has topped 1,000 yards rushing in seven of his last eight seasons and rushed for 66 yards and a score against Green Bay last week.
PREDICTION: San Francisco 21, Carolina 17