It took him until his third season, but Ron Rivera has the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Rivera has his team confident and loose following a first round bye thanks to a division-clinching win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Cats will welcome one of the NFL’s hottest teams, the San Francisco 49ers, who are looking to avenge an earlier 10-9 loss to the Panthers on their own home turf. Here is a breakdown to get you prepared for Sunday’s game.
Time 1:05 PM EST
Location: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, NC)
Keys for Carolina Panthers
Offense: The last time these two teams met, the Carolina offense struggled mightily to move the ball, scoring just one offensive touchdown. I think it’s safe to say they’ll have to score more than 10 points to win this game.
The Panthers’ offense has struggled out of the gate in recent games due to the injury to Steve Smith. Smith stated this week that he’ll play but it’s still uncertain how effective he’ll be. Jonathan Stewart is also expected to be back which will give Carolina one more powerful back to spell DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. The key for the Panther offense will be to start fast. The team has gotten away with slow starts recently but that won’t cut it against this team. Expect offensive coordinator Mike Shula to start out with some easy pass completions to get Newton comfortable.
Defense: Simply put, this unit won the game for Carolina back in November. It forced Colin Kaepernick into one of his worst games as a pro as the Nevada product passed for only 92 yards along with one interception and rushed for just 16 yards on 4 attempts.
The Panther defense will need another stellar effort on Sunday. The 49ers will have Michael Crabtree for this meeting adding more offensive firepower to the mix. Crabtree missed the game in November due to an Achilles injury.
The key for this defense lies in their dominant front seven. Kaepernick was constantly under pressure and was sacked six times in the previous meeting. If this unit is unable to get to Colin Kaepernick, this game could get out of hand quickly.
The trio of Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis have caused defenses plenty of headaches and the Panthers’ secondary will no doubt face it’s biggest challenge of the season. Look for defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to use some delayed blitzes with Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell. Also look for the Panthers to try and seal off the pocket. Kaepernick is most dangerous when he scrambles out towards the sideline and the Cats defense will have to steer him to the middle of the field to cut down on the long runs.
Keys for San Francisco 49ers
Offense: Last year at this point, Colin Kaepernick was bursting onto the scene after a long and public quarterback battle with Alex Smith. Safe to say the Kapernick secret is out, but for him this game is personal. San Francisco’s do it all QB fell to the 2nd round in the NFL Draft in 2011 and that’s always stuck with Kapernick. Coincidentally, the Panthers that year spent their number 1 draft pick on Cam Newton.
Expect the San Francisco offense to use long routes down field to make it easier for Kaep to take off and get huge gains. If Kaepernick is able to get to the second level of the Panther defense it will go a long way to securing a victory for the 49ers. Look for Greg Roman, the San Francisco offensive coordinator, to get the ball to Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis a lot. The Carolina secondary has struggled at times against big physical receivers, and the duo of Crabtree and Davis will present a big issue for them.
Defense: Just as the 49er offense gets one of their offensive leaders back in Michael Crabtree, the defense will have Aldon Smith for this game. Smith was unable to play in the November meeting between these two teams.
The San Francisco defense will have to challenge Cam Newton in the pocket and make him uncomfortable. Newton has shown some indecisiveness and poor throws when he is constantly getting pressured. The key for this defense, much like the Carolina defense, will be to cut down on the long runs by Newton.
Final Thoughts: This game is intriguing for a lot of reasons. It features two physical football teams who have young up and coming franchise quarterbacks who can make you pay with their legs.
Experience is on San Francisco’s side. It will be interesting to see if Ron Rivera will live up to his Riverboat nickname by keeping his offense on the field for fourth down or if he’ll go conservative and put the game on his defense.
No matter what happens on Sunday, this has been a very special Carolina Panthers team. They could have easily thrown in the towel after the 1-3 start, but instead rallied for arguably the biggest turnaround in franchise history. This game could very easily go either way.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Panthers 17