San Francisco 49ers: Divisional round @ Carolina Panthers

San Francisco 49ersIt appears as though we have a mirror match in Charlotte.  The San Francisco 49ers will try to inch one step closer to reaching their second straight Super Bowl as they battle the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers Sunday on FOX at 10:00 am PT.

This game will be physical, this game will be violent, and this game will be be old school smash mouth and feature lots of smack talk, much like their week 10 match-up where the Panthers took it to the 49ers and won 10-9 in Candlestick.  In that game, Colin Kaepernick played one of the worst games in his career.  He only had 107 total yards, was sacked a season high six times and it was the second of two times that the offense was held an entire game without a touchdown.

At 12-4 the Carolina Panthers are the team that has caught everyone by surprise.  They’ve always had a strong running game with DeAngelo Williams, Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart, but this season their defense has been lights out and is ranked 6th in stopping the pass and 2nd in stopping the run.  Their front seven is just as good as the 49ers’ front seven and they have a couple of beasts terrorizing opposing quarterbacks week in and week out with Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson.  Offensively, Cam Newton has really matured and really taken hold of the leadership role for the franchise.

Here are some of the advantages for each team in this matchup:

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Quarterback: 49ers

Call it a match-up of the new age quarterback that features two guys than can beat you with their arm and their legs.  Cam Newton had the highest complete percentage of his career (61.7), he limited his turnovers and still threw 24 touchdowns.  Last week against Packers, Kaepernick showed that he has the ability to be the most dangerous player on the field at any given time.  In that last game-winning drive, he showed the damage he could do with his arm and his legs and now he is 3-1 in playoff with two victories coming on the road.  He has done it before which is why he gets the edge.

Running Game: Push

Both of these teams run the ball exceptionally well and in their previous match-up, the 49ers ran for 105 yards while the Panthers ran for 109 yards; very evenly matched.  Both Frank Gore and DeAngelo Williams are tough, veteran runners but the game will ironically be decided on the legs of the quarterbacks and their ability to extend plays.

Defense: Push

San Francisco 49ers

The Niners’ defense has been here before and is a veteran bunch but the Panthers defense is so good that they pretty much negate that experience.  In this game you will see the two best inside linebacker tandems in the league with Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis facing off with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.  These four guys could combine for 60 tackles in what is expected to be a low scoring game.  Although Carolina has Hardy and Johnson to pressure the quarterback, the 49ers should be able to do the same with Brooks and Aldon Smith.  Both secondaries have performed pretty well and with the return of Carlos Rogers, this should also be an even match-up.

Coaching: 49ers

Who’s got it better than Ron Rivera? Jim Harbaugh!!  Rivera has done a great job this season and should have some serious consideration for coach of the year but Harbaugh in his third year is once again a Super Bowl favorite.  The 49ers have completely taken on his personality and opposing teams know that when facing them they’re in for a dog fight.  The only thing missing now is that ring.

Important factor:  Health for San Francisco

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In week 10 the 49ers lost a game that they felt they should’ve won but truth be told, they were not at full strength.  Micheal Crabtree was still rehabbing, Aldon Smith was dealing with his personal issues and Vernon Davis was knocked out of the game with a concussion.  These three are among the best at their position and to have them on the field will be vital especially for Colin Kaepernick who struggled with this defense.

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Bottom line: Do the Niners have anything left?

Imagine a heavyweight boxer having just gone 12 grueling rounds with a very tough opponent and narrowly edging him out.  Before he celebrates here comes an even bigger, stronger, scarier looking dude to the ring for his shot.  Eddie Lacy gave that 49ers defense some punishment and no one is more thankful than the Panthers.  They will try to punch the 49ers early on but San Francisco has proven time and time again that quitting is not an option and they will do whatever it take to win.  I expect the offensive line to have a much better game and Micheal Crabtree to be the difference in the 49ers victory.

49ers 17

Panthers 13

Game Ball: Michael Crabtree