The Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers have a lot in common.
Each has a dual-threat quarterback, a top-five defense. The teams third-year coaches who were teammates for the Chicago Bears.
The biggest difference between the teams that will meet Sunday in an NFC divisional-round game at Bank of America Stadium is playoff experience.
The 49ers (13-4) are trying to reach the NFC Championship Game for the third consecutive year under coach Jim Harbaugh, a year after losing to Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
The Panthers (12-4) are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and havent won a playoff game since 2005.
As they began preparations for the 49ers on Monday, Panthers players and coaches downplayed the disparity in postseason experience.
Ive never been to the playoffs, and theyve been to the Super Bowl. But I dont think that (affects) the outcome of this game at all, said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, a 2009 draft pick who arrived a year after the Panthers last postseason appearance.
If we go out there and play Carolina-style football, we should come out victorious.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said theres no way to argue the Panthers are more playoff-tested than the 49ers. But Shula said he was surprised when, during an offensive meeting in the preseason, he asked how many players had been in the playoffs and saw a number of hands shoot up.
While nearly every nonrookie on San Franciscos roster has been in a playoff game, fewer than half (21) the Panthers 53-man roster has playoff experience. But the list includes seven starters on offense including three-fifths of the offensive line and five on defense.
Weve treated every game like a playoff game this year, fullback Mike Tolbert said. Weve had games where weve had to come back from being down. Weve had to win games in the last drive. Weve won on big stages on Monday Night Football. Weve done some things that are playoff-caliber type things.
They have a lot of playoff experience, but you have to get experience to gain experience. Were here and were going to fight.
While Harbaugh has a 4-2 playoff record, Ron Rivera will be coaching his first postseason game.
Rivera entered the season with a 2-12 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, before the Panthers dropped their first two games to Seattle and Buffalo by a combined six points.
The Panthers since have won five consecutive games decided by a touchdown or less, including a 10-9 win at San Francisco in Week 10.
Weve played a lot of big games this year. We won a lot of games in the fourth quarter, Rivera said. We played Sunday night (losing to New Orleans). We played Monday night (beating New England). We played against the 49ers. We played against New England. We had to come back in the win against Miami.
We had to play the Saints at home for the division lead. We had to beat Atlanta to win the division. So weve played a lot of big games, too.
The Panthers held San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in check during the first meeting, limiting him to 91 passing yards and 16 rushing yards on four carries. They sacked him six times.
But Kaepernick has played well since the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who missed the first 11 games while recovering from an Achilles injury. Crabtree, who did not play against the Panthers in November, caught eight passes for 125 yards Sunday in a 23-20 win against Green Bay in a wild-card game in frigid conditions at Lambeau Field.
After the game, Harbaugh called Crabtree the greatest catcher of all-time.
Wow, thats some big, strong words, Munnerlyn said. I dont know about all that, because youve got guys like Cris Carter, Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin. You just cant throw him up there, yet. But he does have good hands and runs great routes.
In the six games since Crabtree returned from injured reserve, Kaepernick has completed 103 of 171 passes for 1,437 yards.
Hes a weapon. Theyve got a good balance and theyve got weapons all over the place, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of Crabtree. I think its his six or seventh game back. So hes in the full swing of things and doing a heck of a job.
Moments after rushing for a game-high 98 yards on seven carries, including a third-down scramble that set up Phil Dawsons game-winning field goal, Kaepernick said the 49ers owed the Panthers for the first game.
He said that, huh? Thats fine. They owe us, Tolbert said. And well be ready for them. Well be ready for the challenge, dont worry about that.
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson