By Jerrell Richardson
As tough as it was to go to Green Bay and beat the Packers last week, the 49ers road to the Super Bowl only gets harder this week when they travel to Charlotte, Carolina. Not only are the Panthers on a roll, winning 11 of their last 12 regular season games, but one of those wins was against San Francisco at Candlestick. With the venue switched to Carolina, and the Panthers coming off a bye, they have to like their chances of beating the 49ers for the second time this season.
San Francisco will not be short on confidence either though as they should have won the first game if not for a no-show by the offense. This same offense that could only manage three field goals in the first meeting is not the same unit and now in a much better position to put some points on the board. While there are plenty of things that will ultimately determine the outcome, the key to this NFC divisional clash will be the 49ers offense and its ability to score touchdowns and not field goals against the Panthers defense.
When San Francisco Has the Ball: Advantage Panthers
The mismatch that was the 49er offense vs. the Panthers defense in the first game is not quite as glaring this time around. While Carolina still has perhaps the best run defense in the league and their pass defense is actually improved since week 10, so has the 49ers aerial attack. In week 10, Michael Crabtree was still out with his injury, Vernon Davis was less than 100 percent with a bum hamstring and the result was an offensive train wreck. Since his return the following week, Crabtree has revitalized the passing game, and the 49ers are no longer a one-dimensional offense.
Even with much improved passing game, San Francisco is still going to struggle running the ball. Panthers Linebacker Luke Kuechly has emerged as one of the best linebackers in football after his season with 156 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions. Kuechly spearheads a defense that is allowing less than 90 yards per game on the ground, and will look to shut down Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
When they do try to pass the 49ers will first need to give Colin Kaepernick time. He was sacked six times in the previous game and under duress for the entire afternoon. The Panthers have two pass rushing studs in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson who together combined for 26 sacks during the regular season and stopping them will need to be a high priority. If able to deal with Kuechly and give Kaepernick some time, then the 49ers can make plays through the air. While the Panthers defensive backs are no scrubs, they can’t match up across the board with the likes of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. As long as Kaepernick keeps an eye on safety Mike Mitchell, who leads Carolina with four interceptions he should have another efficient day slinging the ball.
When Carolina Has the Ball: Advantage 49ers
While the 49er offense struggled against the Panthers, the defense did not. San Francisco held Carolina to 10 points in their first meeting, and if able to do that again, have to think they will win the game. Much like the 49ers, the Panthers are a ground team that passes only to set up the run. Carolina is better than most, ranked 11th in the NFL running the ball but is going against an even better 49er run defense. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis will be responsible for containing running back DeAngelo Williams all while keeping a close eye on quarterback Cam Newton who is the team’s second leading rusher. If able to stop the run they will force the Panthers to beat them with the pass, not something Carolina is known for.
The Panthers 29th ranked passing attack is not due to a lack of talent. The team has in wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen two of the best players at their positions. While they do not put up big stats, when the team needs a play either can be counted on, especially Smith who is as clutch of a receiver as there is in the league. The 49ers pass defense played very well against the Packers last week without two cornerbacks (Carlos Rogers and Eric Wright) and figure to be in an even better position to defend the pass this week against the Panthers who are not nearly the passing threat that Green Bay is.
If 49ers Play A Clean Game They Win
Expect a low scoring, defensive struggle for four quarters. Whichever team can find the end zone consistently figures to win the game. Points will be hard to come by with two elite defenses on the field and field goals will not get it done. San Francisco knows what they are going to get from their defense, and will hope that their offense can deliver points. If able to score touchdowns, then the Panthers don’t figure to be able to keep pace and the 49ers will walk away with the win. However, if the 49ers struggle in the red zone, Carolina will be the team moving on. San Francisco is the better team, and if they play a clean game will prove it on the scoreboard, pulling themselves one step closer to a Super Bowl berth.
Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Head Coach: Ron Rivera
Players to Watch: Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Luke Kuechly
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.