San Francisco 49ers (-1) at Carolina Panthers
The old sport cliché is that defense wins championships. Bank of America Stadium will feature two defensive heavyweights looking to prove that cliché true, when the 49ers and Panthers clash Sunday afternoon in Charlotte.
San Francisco 49ers Game Plan:
We’ve seen this show before. For the Niners, it’s all about loading the box, stopping the run and winning one-on-one battles at the next level in the secondary. On offense, it’s all about establishing the run and letting Colin Kaepernick work his magic on the move and in the passing game, locating the reliable hands of Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree to keep the chains moving and hopefully stretching the field with Vernon Davis for a big play or two.
Keys to Success:
- Stop the Run – The Niners defense prides itself on stopping the run. They haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. Keeping that streak alive against the Panthers would prove huge for them, as the Panthers offense ranks 11th in rushing and just 29th in passing. Shut down the run and the Niners are almost sure to win on Sunday.
- Pressure Newton – Cam Newton took 43 sacks this year, fifth most among quarterbacks. He has a tendency to hold onto the ball, often believing he can use his size and speed to avoid pressure and create. Cam wasn’t as elusive in 2013 as he has been in years past. He took a lot of sacks and a ton of them resulted in big losses. Nobody finishes tackles better than the 49ers. If they can pressure Newton, it’ll be difficult for him to escape that pressure. Remember, Aldon Smith played only five snaps in their first meeting back in Week 10. He could be a huge difference-maker this week. The Niners can put a lot of pressure on the Panthers offense if they can get after Cam and force him into long downs and distances. Newton’s receivers are hardly elite when you consider that Steve Smith will play this game at well below 100 percent.
- Win the turnover battle & contain Ted Ginn in the return game – Momentum means everything in playoff games, just ask Andrew Luck. The Niners were dominating Green Bay on Sunday, until Colin Kaepernick made an errant pass and was intercepted by Tramon Williams. The play completely turned the game around. Rodgers couldn’t complete a pass before the pick. Minutes after it, he found Jordy Nelson for the go-ahead touchdown. If the Niners can avoid costly turnovers and contain Ted Ginn in the return game, it’ll be difficult for the Panthers to contend.
Carolina Panthers Game Plan:
The Panthers aren’t the most exciting team in the NFL, but they certainly seem to be the most battle-tested. They were 5-1 in games decided by 4 points or less this season, coming out on top in close battles with New Orleans, New England and San Francisco. The Panthers even took Seattle to the ropes in a tough loss. The secret? Excellent defensive play, limited turnovers on offense and strong red zone efficiency. The Panthers are one of the few teams in the NFL that have the personnel to contain Kaepernick. If the Panthers can win the turnover battle and keep it close, they may be able to ride their home crowd to an upset victory over the Niners on Sunday.
Keys to Success:
- Ride the Riverboat – Ron Rivera and the Panthers have pulled out a lot of close games, because they weren’t afraid to take chances and roll the dice. Since “Riverboat” Ron started gambling, he’s seen a complete turnaround from his squad. The Panthers went from being an 1-3 team destined for another underwhelming season, to an 11-1 team, securing a first round Bye. Don’t be conservative now.
- Establish the Run – It won’t be easy, but the Panthers need to get the run game going. It’s too much a part of their identity not to. If Cam Newton is forced to drop-back and throw every down, the Niners will eat him alive. Even if they’re not breaking big gains, the Panthers need to keep pounding away at this defense. I could see a bruiser like Mike Tolbert being effective against them, much the way Eddie Lacy was last week.
- Contain Kaepernick – Not an easy task, but the Panthers rank second in the NFL against the run. Their line-backing core is arguably just as good as the Niners. They need to spy Colin Kaepernick, bottle up Frank Gore and force Kaepernick to beat them through the air. Forcing Kaepernick into long downs and distances will allow the Panthers to unleash their pass-rushers, in hopes they can add to their NFL lead in sacks. The Panthers held Kaepernick to 16 yards rushing on 4 carries in Week 10, sacking him 6 times. Forced to stay in the pocket, Kaepernick was just 11 of 22 for a cringe-worthy 91 yards and an interception. Lastly…
- Let Cam be Cam – The thing that makes Cam Newton such a special talent is his once-in-a-generation, God-given gifts. He’s bigger than most linebackers and yet he’s got the biggest arm and sometimes the fastest legs of anyone on the field. All through the ranks of high school, junior college, college and now the pros, Cam has shown the ability to carry a team on his back with his special talents. It’s playoff time and the Panthers can’t hold anything back. Jim Harbaugh unleashed Kaepernick last week, so the Panthers need to do the same with Cam if they want any chance this weekend.
Playoff Prediction: 49ers 20 – Panthers 16
The Panthers almost lulled the 49ers to sleep in their first meeting and stole the game in the fourth quarter. The Niners won’t let that happen this time around, not with an NFC Championship birth on the line. Both defenses will give the other offense trouble, but ultimately I think the Niners have a little more fire-power than the Panthers. Crabtree adds an element that the 49ers did not have in their first meeting, as does Aldon Smith. On the Panthers side, Steve Smith is hobbled. The rest of Newton’s weapons aren’t that reliable. Although Cam has taken a huge step forward as a leader and a player this season, he’s been inconsistent down the stretch. It’s also his and Ron Rivera’s first playoff game. As good as the Panthers have been, they drew one of the toughest playoff match-ups. San Francisco is team that mirrors them structurally in a lot of ways, but a team with experience and one of the top coaches in the NFL. In a lot of ways, the Niners may have been the best team in the NFL two years running. A bad bounce on a punt that grazed a knee gave the Giants a title that very well could have been the Niners two years ago. Last year, the Niners were a goal-line series away from being champs. I think this might be the year the NFL’s most complete team finally catches its break. As good as the Panthers are, I’m not sure there’s a defense that can stop the playoff edition of Colin Kaepernick. Expect Colin and the Niners to pull out another tough victory.