Panthers to host 49ers in NFC divisional game

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 5, 2014 

By 4:30 p.m. Sunday, every team remaining in the playoffs knew who they’d face next weekend.

Every team except the Panthers, that is. Now they know.

Carolina will play the San Francisco 49ers, who beat the Green Bay Packers 23-20 Sunday night in the final wild-card game of the playoffs.

The Panthers coaching staff spent their bye week preparing for three possible opponents, and after the Saints topped the Eagles on Saturday night, those possibilities were narrowed to two.

Coach Ron Rivera found comfort in the fact that all three teams were 3-4 defenses, giving the Panthers offensive coaching staff a base with which to work on the bye week. Carolina’s defense, Rivera said, mostly would be reactionary.

Here’s a look at the 49ers, who the Panthers will meet at 1:05 p.m. next Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in their divisional round playoff game.

San Francisco 49ers

Regular season record: 12-4

Last time they met: Panthers won 10-9 on Nov. 10

Series record: Panthers lead 11-7

When the Panthers are on offense: Carolina’s offense has looked paltry without wide receiver Steve Smith, and the 13-year veteran didn’t practice last week with a knee sprain. His status for next weekend’s game is unclear, though he wrote on Instagram that he ran pain-free Sunday for the first time since his injury. Against the 49ers this year, Cam Newton passed for 169 yards, and just 106 after taking away Smith’s 63 yards. The 49ers held the Packers to 157 passing yards Sunday, but that came on a night when neither team threw much considering the cold weather. The 49ers have one of the best linebacking corps in the league, led by NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. With the Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart banged up with a knee sprain, DeAngelo Williams likely will get the bulk of the carries, but Newton could be let loose plenty. Newton led the team in rushing against Atlanta on Dec. 29, and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers showed a talent for extending plays against the 49ers on Sunday. Fullback Mike Tolbert had just two carries last time against San Francisco, and that number should go up this weekend.

When the Panthers are on defense: The Panthers’ secondary will have its hands full with dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his many receiving weapons. Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis are big targets Kaepernick enjoys throwing to, but someone the Panthers haven’t seen is receiver Michael Crabtree. He missed the regular-season matchup recovering from an Achilles injury, and against the Packers he hauled in eight passes for a game-high 125 yards. Carolina’s front four has shown it can get to a quarterback, and Kaepernick holds the ball for long periods of time. He was sacked three times against the Packers and six times against the Panthers, who finished the regular season with a league-high 60 sacks.

Special teams look: San Francisco’s Phil Dawson made three field goals against the Panthers at windy Candlestick Park, and he kicked the game-winner Sunday against the Packers. Dawson and the Panthers’ Graham Gano have identical field-goal percentages at 88.9, and Gano kicked the winning field goal at San Francisco after missing a 48-yard attempt earlier in the game. San Francisco’s LaMichael James is one of the league’s best returners along with Ted Ginn Jr., and that matchup also looks to be a push.

Coaching: Ron Rivera has made a name for himself this season going for it on fourth down, but will that trend continue into the playoffs? This is Rivera’s first time in the postseason as a head coach, while San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh has never known a postseason as coach that didn’t reach at least the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers lost in the conference title game two years ago and bowed to the Ravens in last year’s Super Bowl. Harbaugh showed he’s willing to make gutsy calls this postseason when he elected to go for it on fourth-and-6 from the Green Bay 35 during the first quarter. The 49ers converted on the play and eventually kicked a field goal.

Intangibles: With the bye week, the Panthers will be better rested than the 49ers, who will be coming off one of the coldest games ever played in the NFL. Carolina’s bodies will be fresher, but Rivera’s Panthers are 0-3 coming off a regular-season bye during his three years as coach.

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